The police officer who shot Ethiopian Israeli teenager Solomon Teka to death on June 30 is expected to be charged with reckless homicide, instead of the more serious crime of manslaughter, the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers announced Monday.
Meanwhile, also on Monday, police in Jerusalem deatined seven Ethiopian Israeli demonstrators protesting Teka's shooting and police brutality, and two demonstrators involved in similar protests in other cities earlier this month were charged with assaulting policemen and torching a patrol car.
A representative of the Justice Ministry department announced that its investigation into the death of Teka, an 18-year-old resident of Kiryat Haim, outside Haifa, is over and that the case would now be transferred to the State Prosecutors Office. In parallel, Haifa’s Magistrate’s Court released the officer, whose name has not been publicized, from house arrest.
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MK Ofer Cassif (Hadash) commented that the department’s decision not to extend the officer’s remand raises a grave suspicion that he will not face significant charges. Even if the officer, who was off-duty at the time, shot at the ground and didn’t intend to hit anybody, he wouldn’t have fired a gun at a “whiter Jew” or have killed him, the MK claimed. The officer should be investigated for committing a hate crime – not for police negligence, Cassif added.
The possibility of charging a person for “reckless homicide” came into force just a few days ago, within the framework of a reform of laws involving murder-related crimes. The maximal penalty for reckless homicide is 12 years.
The law defines the reckless element cited in the new category as “taking an unreasonable risk” that could lead to causing a death, “based on a desire to somehow prevent that outcome.” The difference between it and negligent homicide lies in criminal thinking – i.e., awareness of the possibility that death could ensue, but acting based on the idea that this possibility will hopefully not materialize.
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However, since the charge of reckless homicide was instituted after Teka was shot, it can only be applied to the officer in question if it constitutes an act of leniency: In other words, if the ministerial investigations department originally intended to charge him with manslaughter.
Haifa Magistrate’s Court Judge Maria Pikus Bogdanov rejected the department’s demand to prohibit the officer from entering all of the police stations in the country, but she did forbid him from going into the Zevulun district station (where he had served), or returning to the scene of the crime and the park near it, for 45 days. He is also barred from leaving the country for three months. The judge dismissed investigators' fears that the officer posed a danger or would be likely to obstruct justice.
The police officer has been questioned under caution three times since Teka was shot and killed, and last week reenacted the incident under heavy guard. Eyewitnesses in the case include the man’s wife and young people who were at the scene, including some of Teka’s friends, whom police had difficulty bringing in for questioning at first.
Since Teka’s death, thousands of Ethiopians have protested around the country against what they say is the racist way police treat members of their community. Two days after Teka’s death, protesters blocked major roads in various locales for hours, creating tremendous traffic jams. Some of the demonstrations took a violent turn and about 200 protesters were arrested.
Two men indicted
The two men indicted on Monday had been involved in such events. One of them, Moti Biton, 28, of Netivot, was charged with assaulting a policeman during the protest in that city on July 2. According to the charge sheet, he shouted slogans like “All policemen are murderers” and “Policemen are maniacs” – although there is some question as to his exact words. He also pointed to one police officer, Tzachi Cohen, and shouted, “Here’s another murderer.”
Biton and other demonstrators also allegedly attacked police officer Tal Topahi, while he tried to arrest a protester who had ignited some object in the middle of an intersection.
Biton admitted to being at the Netivot demonstration, but said he left early and wasn’t involved in attacking the police. He has a long criminal record that includes drug offenses, reckless driving, threats, assaulting a civil servant and interfering with a policeman in the line of duty. He also has juvenile convictions for assaulting policemen, etc.
The second demonstrator indicted Monday is Eitan Maharato, 23, of Rosh Ha'ayin, who is being charged with incitement, assaulting police and setting a patrol car on fire, at a July 2 protest in Petah Tikva. He is said to have thrown stones and a firebomb at police officers, as well. The prosecution has asked that he be held without bail.
Maharato wrote several inflammatory posts on Facebook – which he reposted after they were removed – urging people “to kidnap policemen, stab them and hunt them as if they were cats ... abuse them and their disgusting women, throw grenades and firebombs at their houses, slaughter them like ISIS,” according to the charge sheet.
Officer in hiding
For the time being, the police officer involved in the shooting of Teka and his family are considered to be in extreme danger and are being hidden somewhere in central Israel, under police guard. For some of the time he was under house arrest, they stayed at a hotel.
A lawyer representing the officer said he hopes the case will end without charges being fired at all, but he hasn’t seen the evidentiary materials yet. The lawyer added that the man and his family have been threatened and that his mental state is bad.
The Justice Ministry department will be handing over its investigative results to the Israel Police’s internal disciplinary division, which will consider whether the officer should be suspended. In any event, he probably won’t be returning to the Zevulun district, for fear of his safety.
Meanwhile, within police ranks, some voiced rare criticism on Sunday of the force’s top brass for its handling of the protests. They claimed that the senior officers failed to predict the scope and intensity of the Ethiopian community’s demonstrations in the wake of Teka's killing, and argued that the police response should have been less restrained.
Last week the police investigations department reported that forensic and ballistic tests showed that the officer had fired his gun into the ground and Teka was killed by a ricochet. The officer told investigators that he fired into the ground, not the air, because he was in a residential area. He also related that although he was off-duty he had acted in order to separate Teka and his friends from a boy, roughly 13 years old, whom they were attacking; once the officer returned to his family, nearby, Teka and his friends threw rocks at him, striking his head and shoulder. Believing that his own safety and that of his family was in danger, the officer said he chased after the teenagers and fired into the ground, but did not mean to kill Teka.
A source familiar with the case says there are significant discrepancies between that version of events and those of the eyewitnesses.
A youth counselor who was working near the scene of the shooting told police that, as he saw it, there was no danger to the officer’s life that could have prompted him to open fire. “He prepared to shoot and fired a single bullet when Solomon was at least 30 meters away from him. From where I was standing [I saw] he wasn’t shooting toward his legs but was really aiming straight at him,” the witness said.
According to the counselor, after Teka was shot, “one of the other counselors tried to resuscitate him and I saw the officer hovering over the body and walking among us, talking on the phone as nothing had happened. The police officer wasn’t wounded when he fired, and if he was, he managed to cover it up pretty well. He wasn’t in a life-threatening condition and his children were not around, the street was empty.”