Israel Fails to Implement 'Life-saving' Recommendations on Police-disabled Relations

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The scene of yesterday's shooting in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa
The scene of yesterday's shooting in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa Credit: Rami Shllush

In mid-February, after eight months of work, an interministerial committee handed a report to President Reuven Rivlin that outlined ways of improving the interaction between law enforcement agencies and people with disabilities. The committee recommended setting up training programs and establishing intervention teams that would be brought in when appeals or complaints were made concerning people with disabilities.

“These guidelines were written in blood,” said Rivlin during the ceremony marking the report’s handover. “This important report must be implemented quickly. As events in recent years have shown, these recommendations could save lives.” However, several sources say the way these recommendations will be implemented has not been decided, nor has the division of responsibilities between different ministries. The absence of a functioning government may further delay implementation.

The interministerial committee was set up days after Border Policeman shot dead Eyad al-Hallaq, a young autistic man from East Jerusalem, in May 2020. This was not an isolated incident. The report notes that there have been similar in the last two years. Two weeks before Hallaq was killed, security guards shot and killed Mustafa Younis at the entrance to Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer; two weeks before that, a policeman killed Shirel Habura in Rosh Ha’Ayin; in 2019, Yehuda Biadga was shot to death in Bat Yam.

And on Monday, after a Haifa woman called the police, saying her mentally troubled son was brandishing a knife and running wild around the house, the policeman who responded to the call shot and killed him. Munir Anabtawi, 33, chased the policeman who arrived on the scene, slightly injuring him, after which the officer shot him dead.

The interministerial committee addressed encounters between law enforcement agencies and people with disabilities, and with the problems that arise during these encounters. The committee included representatives from the social services, justice and health ministries, as well as members of civil society organizations. The police presented their views on the report and its recommendations.

The report determined that one of the main difficulties is how law enforcement agents can identify a person with a disability, and vice versa. “The mutual lack of identification leads to situations where people with disabilities often do not understand the situation or who is facing them, and how they’re supposed to behave,” says the report. “A law enforcement agent can therefore interpret behaviors associated with the disability as a refusal to cooperate or as suspicious behavior. In the absence of appropriate training, enforcement agents lack the knowledge or tools needed to prevent an escalation of the situation.”

The committee recommended setting up a training program that would lead to a profound change in conceptions and attitudes toward people with disabilities. Another recommendation, as reported in Haaretz last year, was to establish teams composed of professionals that could assess the mental state of a disabled person and mediate between them and law enforcement agents. A further recommendation was to use “communications cards” when a person has difficulty speaking or explaining himself, as well as equipping each police car with a kit that would allow police officers to identify, understand and provide assistance during such encounters. The report also called for investigating claims that disabled people were overrepresented in criminal cases.

The committee proposed that the cabinet appoint an interministerial implementation team, led by the Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, to quickly formulate directives for implementing its recommendations. According to one source, the police commissioner is supposed to be part of this team.

Neta Dagan, director of the Bizchut nonprofit organization for people with disabilities, who was on the committee, wondered how many more tragedies would occur before it became clear that the police did not have the tools to interact with disabled people. She said that the incoming government should implement the recommendations, especially the establishment of a professional team that could prevent escalation in cases requiring treatment, not criminal proceedings. In tandem, she said, mental health services in the community are needed to prevent a deterioration of the situation and the criminalization or enforced hospitalization of such people.

The police said in response they are “handling thousands of incidents a year that involve people with special needs professionally and with dedication,” and do so according to the law. The police added they are in contact with welfare officials and relevant civil society groups to improve their response.

The police also said that “treating a disabled person isn’t the responsibility of the police alone, and this important issue requires multifaceted treatment.”

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