Ashkelon Magistrate’s Court Judge Robin Lavi last week decried what she called the seriously flawed conduct of the Israel Police and its investigators in an incident where a police officer shot to death a fleeing suspect.
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Specifically, the judge faulted the Police Investigation Division's decision not to launch an investigation on its own into the incident, and she found improprieties in the inquiry that was ultimately undertaken in the wake of a request by the family.
Lavi ruled that the shooting was not justified, since the suspect, Omer Ashkenazi, was unarmed when he fled, and the officer who shot him did not obey the usual procedures for opening fire.
On February 27, 2015, Ashkenazi, 19, was observed planting an explosive device next to a residential building in Ashdod, as part of a feud between local criminals. When he saw that Lachish District police officers had noticed him, he fled.
When he tried to ram his car into the police vehicles that blocked his way, at least one officer fired at the tires of his car. Then Ashkenazi took off on foot. While pursuing him, another officer fired twice at Ashkenazi, and one bullet struck him in the head. Ashkenazi was critically wounded and died a week later.
Police regulations state that an officer may fire at a suspect without warning only when the officer faces clear and present danger, and there is no other means to stop the suspect. But in this case, Ashkenazi was fired upon as he was trying to flee and had his back to the officers.
If there is no immediate mortal threat, an officer is supposed to call out, “Stop or I’ll shoot,” and fire a warning shot in the air – but only then to aim at the lower body. If an officer identifies with certainty that the suspect is holding a firearm, he is not duty bound to fire the warning shot.
The officers in this case claimed that Ashkenazi was holding something they suspected to be a weapon. It turned out to be gloves.
Lavi found that the officers did not shout a warning or fire a warning shot, and ruled that since it had not been established that the suspect was indeed holding a weapon, the officers should not have fired at him – and certainly not at his upper body. The judge agreed, however, that shooting at the tires of the suspect’s vehicle was justified.
In her ruling, the judge also noted that the officers’ weapons were not collected after the incident and no ballistics testing was done, making it impossible to ascertain which persons fired the two bullets found at the scene. Another glaring error was that numerous pieces of evidence, such as one of Ashkenazi’s gloves, disappeared without explanation.
The Israel Police's response: “The officers were involved in thwarting an assassination attempt The officers had to take action against a suspect who began to flee in his vehicle while seriously endangering their lives. As in every incident involving police gunfire, an investigation was launched by the PID, which ultimately found no fault with the officers’ conduct during the incident”
The response of the PID: “The incident involved gunfire by police officers in the course of an operation launched against a number of parties, including the deceased After the deceased planted an explosive near the home of a criminal, the officers gave chase. In response, he fled in his vehicle while posing a danger to the officers, and subsequently attempted to flee on foot – with the officers suspecting the entire time that he was armed. The shots were fired in order to 'neutralize' him when the officers felt themselves to be in danger ”