Don't Decentralize the Police

Decentralizing law enforcement and putting it in the hands of dozens of local authorities in a small country like Israel will only create redundancy and undermine efficiency.

It is somewhat surprising that at the height of a global economic crisis, as unemployment is rising, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's first proposal is to reorganize the police force. But that is not the only strange thing in this government. Practically speaking, this is a contemptible proposal, even if we ignore the attempt to emulate former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, the hero of all the people on the right who believe in a strong hand and an outstretched arm.

Decentralizing law enforcement and putting it in the hands of dozens of local authorities in a small country like Israel will only create redundancy and undermine efficiency. When several local police forces investigate crime families who live in one place but operate in another, efficiency will decline and the risk of leaks will increase.

But beyond that, there is a clear political reason to reject the proposal. Anyone who is familiar with the functioning of the local authorities knows how many opportunities they provide for applying pressure and introducing narrow, party-based political considerations into the decision-making process. It would certainly not be correct to generalize by saying that the local authorities in Israel are corrupt - most of the municipalities and those who run them do their work faithfully - but reports by the state comptroller have repeatedly revealed that the percentage of acts of corruption on the local level is higher than on the national level. The dependence of mayors and local council members on local strongmen is evident, as can be seen in an examination of decisions related to real estate, business licenses and building permits.

It is quite possible that if local police forces are formed, control over them will become a central issue in future coalition negotiations, and it is clear that the heads of the local party branches will consider control of the police one of the most desirable goals. After all, is there a better way to reward loyal party members than to appoint them as police officers in the local police force? In such a situation, it is also hard to assume that a local police force will be able to carry out an honest investigation of corruption allegations in the local authority, since the police will be directly subordinate to the local authority heads.

One of the basic requirements for any police force is the professionalism and training of those who serve in it. But who exactly will train local forces? Will every municipality and local council establish a police academy? And if the training is in the hands of the central police force, what have the wise men accomplished by amending the law? Nor is it clear who will guarantee that the appointment of the commanders of the local police force will be free of political considerations and coalition bargaining.

In addition, the minister who raised the idea of making the police force a municipal responsibility probably did not give any thought to the question of who would handle those areas that are not within municipal jurisdiction, such as intercity roads, or how exactly the police force will look in an ultra-Orthodox city like Bnei Brak, and what norms it will try to enforce. Nor is it certain if he deliberated about the significance of transferring responsibility for public order to municipal police forces in Arab cities like Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm.

There is undoubtedly room for improvement in the functioning of the police force, and Steinitz is correct in saying that we have to strengthen citizens' sense of security. But even with all the criticism of the Israel Police, to date it has not suffered from politicization and has not refrained from investigating very senior public figures.

Making local authorities responsible for the police may help those who want to win additional support in party primaries, but will not contribute to citizens' security - and certainly not to the rule of law.