Israel Police Is Overflowing With Volunteers - but Most of Them Aren't Properly Trained

They have all of the authority but a fraction of the training of their paid counterparts on the force. They are considered highly motivated, but officers don't trust them in sensitive situations. How much volunteering is too much?

Raz Attias, 18, held a gun to the head of his 17-year-old pregnant girlfriend as they sat in a car in a wooded area outside Beit Shemesh on October 19, 2012, threatening to kill her and then himself. The first responders, dispatched after Attias informed Israel Channel 2 news about his plans and his cellphone location was tracked, were police volunteers. Armed with a handgun and an M16 rifle, they charged the car. As the Channel 2 investigative program "Uvda" later reported, they fired more than 30 bullets at Attias in under one minute, killing him. His girlfriend was unharmed.

On December 2, 2011 two police volunteers lit off on a high-speed chase after a car failed to stop for a routine license check near Kfar Sava. After a pursuit that continued for several kilometers the driver lost control of the car, which flipped over. Eden Musai, 18, a passenger in the car, was killed. The driver, Or Harush, was seriously injured.

Both incidents raised questions about the volunteers' decisions. Why did the volunteers in the Attias case not attempt to defuse the situation without resorting to force? Why did the ones who launched the pursuit against Harush and Musai not instead go to Harush's home and arrest him when he returned, rather than endangering the lives of the two young men as well as everyone in the path of the chase?

In both cases police investigations found no fault with the volunteers’ actions, but the fatal incidents nevertheless call into question the level of police volunteers’ professionalism and training. Police officers and members of the public alike are critical of the heavy reliance of the Israel Police on volunteers, but this has not reduced their numbers. Over the past year, in fact, measures have been taken to increase them. Police officials say that without the volunteer, who outnumber paid officers, the force would be incapable of providing basic policing services to the country’s citizens.

The Israel Police have 28,000 officers and 35,000 volunteers, who work on patrol (6,203), in the Traffic Police (7,140), in investigations and the juvenile unit (542), the Border Police (7,237) and in crowd policing (10,571). Thousands more work in the Zaka rescue and recovery unit and in other units.

Since each volunteer must work for at least eight hours a month, each week police volunteers account for more than 13,000 shifts.

The basic requirements for volunteering are not high. Volunteers must be between 16 and 77 years old, without a criminal record, and are required to pass a personal interview and security classification with the station officer in charge of volunteers. Volunteers for the patrol and investigation units, which have an age ceiling of 55, are given only rudimentary training. For patrol volunteers this consists of seven sessions, three to four hours each, to learn the duties and authority of a police officer, the rights of arrested persons and how to make an arrest. Regular police officers, in contrast, undergo seven months of basic training. Some police departments offer targeted supplementary courses, such as a four-session Traffic Police course with instruction in traffic laws and in writing tickets.

Police volunteers have the same authority as police officers. They can carry a weapon and detain citizens for questioning. As long as they go to the shooting range twice a year they may be issued a police weapon from their station. Volunteers with their own gun licenses can carry their weapons during their shifts.

New volunteers work under the close supervision of police officers. After six months on the force they are eligible for an advanced course of five sessions, in which they learn how to manage a crime scene and to call for backup, among other things. After completing this course the volunteers are free to work solo.

Many police officers say they are hesitant to work with volunteers at scenes that could turn violent, and complaints from officers who work with volunteers are common on Hasufim Banayedet, an online forum for police officers. A patrol officer in the Tel Aviv district writes, for example: “When I arrive at a scene where I have to get out of the vehicle and enter a situation where there could be violence, I never feel safe doing that with a volunteer. I don’t know his level of professionalism, and volunteers don't go to work to be beaten up by criminals," writes the officer, adding that in these cases he always waits for backup from another officer before approaching the scene.

For many police officers the issue with volunteers is not ability, but trust and credibility. “In very many cases where the police had to use force it was the volunteer who told the commanders that unnecessary force was used," said a member of the Special Patrol Unit, better known by its Hebrew acronym, Yasam. “A volunteer doesn’t have to watch out for his fellow officers and doesn’t know what it is to give backup to someone else. Today he’s with me, tomorrow it will be someone else. Every officer who is dragged into a violent situation with someone else would want that other person to be a work colleague whom he knows and can trust,” the officer said.

Complaints aside, some of the volunteers are actually more professional than police officers. Most are established, family men between the ages of 37 and 65 who are highly motivated to contributing to the security of their area of residence.

Some are definitely there for the action. Many of the Traffic Police volunteers come in the wake of a personal or family tragedy, and see preventing traffic accidents as a mission. Volunteers in the Border Police, in contrast, tend to be members of rural moshavim and kibbutzim who seek to protect their homes and property.

The Israel Police volunteer division was created in 1974 in the wake of the terror attack in Ma’alot. In its early years the Civil Guard swelled to unmanageable proportions, at one point comprising 130,000 volunteers. There was no screening and little or no training of the volunteers, who regularly became involved in conflicts with civilians and became an embarrassment for the police.

A reform carried out in 1999 created the volunteers department, headed by an officer at the rank of major general, and cut the number of volunteers to 70,000.

In 2011 an additional step was taken. The volunteer department was subsumed into the Operations Division, currently headed by Maj. Gen. Nissim Mor. The force now wants to increase the number of volunteers, and to that end Mor has allocated millions of shekels in addition to renovating buildings, purchasing uniforms and equipment and issuing (honorary) titles to all volunteers.

Over the past two years all positions, with the exception of those in intelligence, have been opened to volunteers, and in some units they are nearly invaluable.

One such example is the rescue unit, which has volunteers who are skilled in all-terrain driving, rappelling and other outdoor skills. In the past year the unit’s 600 volunteers aided 1,737 citizens, mainly lost or injured hikers. The forensic dentistry unit, which identifies victims of crimes and terror attacks, also depends on volunteers. The unit's skills were put to use recently after the attack on a bus of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in Operation Pillar of Defense and after a fire in Rehovot that killed five children and their father.

The police force's computer unit makes use of volunteers with programming and engineering backgrounds, volunteer psychologists and psychiatrists are often consulted in incidents requiring negotiations or as profilers and Middle East affairs experts have helped the police to address crime in the Arab community.

“We will continue recruiting volunteers and will continue to be the largest volunteer organization in Israel,” says Mor.

“The volunteers are high-quality people who in many cases are every bit as good as the police officers. They give of their time and effort to contribute to the country. We’re familiar with the complaints against the volunteers, but there are actually very few complaints in relation to the benefit they bring to the country’s citizens.”

Yanky Haritin