When the Emergency Hotline Goes Cold

The mishandling of kidnapped teen's brave call to the police comes as no surprise to many who tried it in the past.

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Volunteers answer calls at the police hotline center in Jerusalem, Sept. 1, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

Frustration was added to the dreadful trauma of the families of the three Israeli teenagers abducted in the West Bank when it emerged that one of the boys had managed to call 100, Israel’s 911 emergency hotline, and whisper “We’ve been kidnapped.”

The failure of the police to respond until hours later to that brave and desperate call is now the subject of an official inquiry set up by Israel’s police commissioner.

Sadly, the failure to respond to the emergency will come as no surprise to many people who have tried calling that number. I have used it twice since arriving in Israel. Both times, the police did nothing.

The first time was when I discovered that my neighbors, who were on vacation, had been burgled. It was Saturday morning. The emergency operator suggested I go into the house and look around. When I pointed out it was a crime scene and, for all I knew, the burglars might still be in there, she said she’d send a patrol car. It didn’t arrive for more than five hours.

The second time was more serious. A woman friend was physically assaulted by a taxi driver in Jerusalem. When she phoned 100 to report the assault, the operator refused to take down the license number of the taxi. When I accompanied her to the police station to report the incident, the police officer refused to call the emergency switchboard to retrieve the license number. When I phoned myself, the operator claimed there was no record of the call. It was only when I asked a senior police officer who happened to be a friend whether all calls to the emergency operator weren’t recorded that he managed to retrieve the license number of the taxi. My friend was promised swift action and an apology from the police. Instead, they did nothing.

The Israeli police actually have a pretty good record when it comes to solving crimes, with cleanup rates much higher than many western democracies. But when it comes to dealing with the public, their professionalism leaves a lot to be desired. Because of the failure to respond to that kidnap call, we now know that the “emergency operator” who answers a 100 call is likely to be an untrained teenage conscript rather than a fast-moving, mature professional.

Last month, I interviewed NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, the man whose “Broken Windows” policy in the 1990s made the streets of New York City safe again. He pointed out that solving major crimes isn’t enough. Only by caring about the broken windows, petty vandalism and minor street crimes and interacting professionally with the public was it possible for the NYPD to restore the quality of life that New York’s residents required.

The Israel police are under-funded, under-staffed, under-equipped and taken for granted. That desperate emergency call should alert the government that it’s time to give the police the resources they need to fix Israel’s broken windows.