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Friends and relatives of former policeman Shahar Mizrahi escorted him with sorrow Sunday to the gates of the prison where he will serve a 30-month sentence for the manslaughter of Mahmoud Ganaim. His colleagues in the police took care to show up in civilian dress and made do with a silent show of support for the convict.

In contrast, the commander of the police's northern district, Maj. Gen. Shimon Koren, faced the cameras in police uniform and explained to the reporters that he had come to support a policeman who acted "in the service of the police."

Koren ought to have known that the district court ruled Mizrahi shot the car thief solely to prevent him from fleeing the scene of the crime. The judges also noted that even if Mizrahi had felt his life was in danger, the method he used to protect himself - firing directly at an unarmed man - was extreme and unreasonable.

And Koren was certainly aware that the Supreme Court, in its decision to accept the state's appeal against the leniency of the sentence originally imposed on Mizrahi, stressed that even policemen confronted with difficult situations must obey the law.

The message this senior officer sent to his subordinates is that Mizrahi acted legally and even in a way that merited his commander's public backing. The officer in charge of the most sensitive district in Israel, from the standpoint of the establishment's relationship with the country's Arab minority, thus effectively said there is nothing wrong in the actions of a policeman found guilty by two different courts of the manslaughter of a young Arab man. Koren's public display of support for the errant policeman was also a public vote of no-confidence in the court system.

Police Commissioner David Cohen ought to have reprimanded Koren for his behavior and publicly declared that a policeman who kills someone, even a criminal, when it was not necessary to save his own life will be tried and punished with the full severity of the law. But it's hard to expect the police commissioner to rebuke his district commander when he himself has backed Mizrahi, and when his own superior, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, has announced that not only did he give the police his full backing, but he would "do everything possible to avoid weakening them in their bloody battle against crime in Israel."

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein must make it clear immediately to the police's top brass that the war on crime is not a license to kill criminals. And neither is it a permit for law enforcement agents to criticize and demonstrate against the court system.