Israel Blasted by State Watchdog for Failing to Investigate Cases of Police Brutality

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Members of the Border Police making an arrest.
Members of the Border Police making an arrest.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Justice Ministry’s department for investigating the police does not thoroughly investigate enough cases of suspected police violence, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said in a report released Wednesday.

Against this backdrop, opinion polls show that the public’s confidence in the police is lacking, especially among minority groups, Shapira adds.

According to the comptroller, most complaints fielded by the Justice Ministry department are closed at preliminary stages, so only in a minority of cases does the department question a police officer under caution as someone who might be charged with a crime.

There is no organizational process for handling cases and no process for drawing conclusions and learning lessons following police violence, Shapira says. Also, when officers actually are indicted or convicted, they are not necessarily suspended.

Between 2013 and 2015, for example, of the more than 20,000 cases the department opened against police officers, 43 percent were closed after the preliminary inquiry. In only 16 percent of these cases was the officer questioned under caution, and this number has been declining, Shapira says.

In 2015, 66 percent of the cases were closed without questioning the officers under caution. Of the 6,320 cases opened in 2015, just 187 reached a disciplinary tribunal or criminal court.

The department issues its own report once a year, citing the number of complaints against the police, the number of cases opened and the steps that were eventually taken.

But Shapira says the figures in these reports are not complete. For example, the department breaks down cases by the kind of complaint – but this breakdown only includes cases where officers were questioned under caution.

The department’s guideline when deciding whether to question an officer under caution, let alone try him, is to find the correct balance between taking action against wayward officers and deterring officers from doing their jobs. But Shapira says no study has been done to see whether trying police officers has a deterrent effect on their colleagues.

Keeping the public in the dark

The state comptroller also found an absence of procedures for reporting between the department and the police themselves. Also, according to Shapira, people seem unaware that they must formally complain to the Justice Ministry department. A complaint to the police about police brutality will not bring the problem to the ministry.

Also, the department does not normally bother to tell the complainant about his right to formally lodge a complaint, even though not possessing the complainant’s address or other details does not exempt the department from informing him. Nor does Shapira consider it reasonable for the department to throw out cases without telling the complainant.

The only test the department uses is that of criminality. Thousands of cases closed because they do not cross that threshold do not get passed on to the police. A few do, but the police’s internal disciplinary department does very little to fight police violence, Shapira says.

In 2015, the department opened more than 600 cases in which officers were questioned under caution, and 22 officers were suspended for suspected involvement in crime involving moral turpitude. In other words, says Shapira, in most cases the police do not suspend officers who are being investigated or have been indicted.

In 2015, the Justice Ministry department did send more cases to the police for internal disciplinary handling, but usually the sanctions were mild. The upshot is lax discipline, Shapira says.

Each year dozens of police officers do get fired, but very few cases are due to police violence. In 2013, of the 69 police fired that year, only three were fired for violence. In 2014, 74 officers were fired, three for violence; for 2015 these numbers were 82 and nine.

Low faith in the cops

But Shapira says opinion polls and the sheer number of complaints filed against the police show that trust in the force is low, especially among minority groups. Also, the practice of hearings being held before a single judge, rather than a panel, may not be in the public interest, Shapira adds.

The police’s disciplinary tribunal is empowered to deliver a reprimand, lower an officer’s rank, impose a fine or detain an officer for up to 45 days. But the law says nothing about how severe a demotion may be, or for how long the demotion remains. Usually when a punishment involves a demotion, it is by one rank and rarely lasts more than a year, Shapira says.

In reports to the public, the names of wayward police officers are erased for fear of hurting their “right to a good name,” but Shapira says publishing their names would bolster the public’s faith in the police and better deter other officers.

Officers caught lying in reports are referred for a conversation with their commanders, who explain that if the officer is called to provide testimony in court, he must carefully answer questions lest he impair the credibility of himself and the force.

Shapira also says the police do not monitor officers who serially break the law. He noted a case in 2016 where a policeman was fired for “forming relationships” with women who came to the station where he worked. When auditors asked for the policeman’s personal file, they discovered he had been doing this since he joined the force in 1992.

In 2003 the tribunal had found him guilty of abuse of power and reprimanded him. All told, he had seven convictions at the tribunal, two traffic convictions, and one conviction for property damage.

Also, the public had lodged 22 complaints against this officer alleging improper behavior, amid 21 internal probes of possible violence.

Each of these cases had been closed, each for its own reasons. And the officer’s service record reveals below-average marks for values and self-control – for a policeman in daily contact with the public.

“Ultimately he was fired,” Shapira said, “but only after more than 20 years of service and dozens of complaints.”

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