Israel Police Chief: It's Natural for Officers to Be More Suspicious of Ethiopians

Roni Alsheich says research shows that immigrants and young people are disproportionately involved in crime worldwide.

A policeman confronts a protester at an Ethiopian-Israeli demonstration in Tel Aviv, June 3, 2015.
Avishag Shaar Yashuv

In answer to a question at a public appearance on Tuesday about police violence against young Ethiopian Israelis, Police Chief Roni Alsheich said research shows that worldwide, without exception, immigrants and young people are disproportionately involved in crime.

Speaking at an Israel Bar Association conference, Alsheich added: “When these two things come together, it turns out that a particular community is statistically involved in crime more than others. When a policeman encounters a suspect, [the policeman’s] mind suspects him more than it would if he were someone else.” He acknowledged, however, that the police were late in dealing with the issue of violence involving police and Ethiopian Israelis.

Several high-profile cases involving apparent violent or verbally abusive conduct by the police against Ethiopian Israelis sparked major demonstrations last year.

Inbar Bugala, a leader of Ethiopian Israeli social protests, said in response: “This is not the first time we’re hearing that [the police] relate to us as criminals. Now the chief of police comes along and says that black is suspicious. I am black; I am a criminal [and] it’s also natural for a policeman to think that way. It’s normal. It’s not a distortion,” she said sarcastically.

Bugala said it is simply “natural” that she would not be able to wander around upscale Herzliya Pituah without being approached by a policeman. “In essence, with one sentence, the police chief has summarized and confirmed all of our complaints since the protest,” she said, “simply confirming that we as blacks are criminals.”

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich speaking in December 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

Ben-Gurion University’s Prof. Guy Ben-Porat, who does research on police relations with minority groups, said that in Israel there is a problem with “police culture,” as he called it, and maintained that the focus needs to be on police violence and not on the Ethiopian community.

Of complaints filed with the Justice Ministry by members of the Ethiopian community alleging police misconduct, 34 percent involve suspicions of criminal conduct by the police. Last year, 22 percent of such complaints resulted in indictments or disciplinary proceedings against the police involved.

Alsheich said that a program has been developed with the leadership of the Ethiopian community to curb what he called “over-policing,” a phenomenon that the police chief called “natural but problematic.”

Efforts are also being made, he said, to close criminal cases involving what he called “friction,” involving allegations such as insulting public employees or “over-policing” in confrontations with suspects. When incidents raise questions, “there is a tendency towards lenience,” Alsheich claimed. Surveys show that confidence in the police in the Ethiopian community is growing, the police chief added.

In 2015, the rate at which indictments were filed against Israelis of Ethiopian background, 3.5 percent, was more than double that against the population as a whole. The rate at which juveniles from the Ethiopian community were indicted, 8.5 percent, was more than four times the rate among the juvenile population in general. And as of June of this year, 8.5 percent of those serving prison time at the Ofek juvenile detention center were of Ethiopian background. Ethiopian Israelis make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population.

In 2013, 6.5 percent of all juvenile files opened in Israel involved Ethiopian Israelis. In 2014, the figure rose to 7.3 percent and in 2015 to 7.6 percent.

'Replicating racist prejudice'

The police chief's remarks were widely derided by members of the opposition. "I call on him [the chief of police] to correct and clarify his statements, because it's intolerable that anyone understand that it's legitimate to place Ethiopian or Arab citizens under heavier scrutiny," the leader of the opposition, MK Isaac Herzog, said. "Everyone in office must do his part to eradicate racist talk or profiling of any kind." 

MK Zehava Galon, the leader of the leftist Meretz party, said that Alsheich must resign. "If the person who heads the police is replicating racist prejudice against the Ethiopian-migrant community, it's not surprising that cops think that its 'natural to suspect them.'"

The head of the Joint List of Arab parties, MK Ayman Odeh, said the police has systematically forsaken disadvantaged minorities, and that therefore he was not surprised by the chief's remarks. "The chief of police should be reminded that his job is to serve and protect the entire citizen body, and not just the white Jewish public," he said. 

Following the uproar, Israel Police issued a statement saying that Alsheich was misquoted by the media, and that he had no intention of harming Israelis of Ethiopian descent. The chief's remarks were meant as an honest overture, "meant to allow the correction and improvement of the interfaces between the police and police officers" and Ethiopians," said the statement.

"Israel Police invests deep thinking into understanding the existing rift between officers and Israelis of Ethiopian descent. The chief of police made an honest admission that after deep internal examination we found that there was overpolicing at the interface between cops and members of the Ethiopian community in Israel," said that statement.