Minister Announces Reform to Israeli Police Oversight Agency, but It Already Faces Hurdles

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Keren Bar-Menachem, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the press conference, August 18, 2020.
Keren Bar-Menachem, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the press conference, August 18, 2020.Credit: Yossi Zamir / GPO

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn announced on Tuesday that he was reforming the ministry’s department of internal police investigation, following criticism of its handling of complaints, particularly in cases involving police brutality against marginalized communities.

The crux of the reform involves staffing the department with civilians only, so that police officers do not investigate other police, but despite the announcement on "full separation," sixteen police officers will continue to work in the department’s intelligence unit and not be replaced by civilians, for now.

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The department’s head, Keren Bar-Menachem, recently appointed a police officer with the rank of superintendent as the head of the intelligence unit. This was done despite the decision to replace police officers with civilians and in spite of opposition by department investigators who preferred the appointment of a civilian to the job.

Haaretz has learned that the justice minister wanted to split the department into two separate units, an investigative one and a prosecutorial one, only one of which would be under the jurisdiction of the head of the department of internal police investigations. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Bar-Menachem opposed this, killing the initiative.

Law enforcement usually takes place with one body doing the investigations (the police or the Shin Bet security service), and another body, the state prosecution, handling indictments. The two bodies are headed by different people in an attempt to maintain prosecutorial independence, uninfluenced by investigators in any given file. In the department of internal police investigations it’s often the same person deciding on both stages of a file.

A demonstration calling on the department to publish police records of the shooting of Eyad Hallaq, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The intelligence division of this department holds sensitive information about police officers, and its role is to gather information relating to suspected criminal wrongdoing by policemen, using internal and external sources. When police officers in the department end their tenure there, some of them return to work for the police, possessing information about officers they have worked or will work with.

The previous head of the department’s intelligence unit, who was just replaced, was promoted to the rank of chief superintendent and returned to the police’s traffic division as an investigator. The new head of the intelligence unit is also expected to return to the police at the end of his current posting.

The replacement of police officers by civilians is relevant to three police investigators currently working in the department. One of them heads the investigations unit, and has been with the department for over 25 years, having passed retirement age. The other two are team heads who came from the police. One of them, Dov Scherzer, served in the police’s fraud unit Lahav 433, and was the one who questioned Mendelblit in the Harpaz Affair. The second officer, Superintendent Rotem Gil, was brought in by Bar-Menachem a year ago, despite plans already in place to replace police officers with civilians. The ombudsman of the state’s representatives in the courts, Judge David Rosen, expressed scathing criticism of Gil two weeks ago for cancelling a traffic ticket he’d been issued. The three policemen learned about their termination only at the press conference on Tuesday, in which the reform was announced.

The press conference was held by Nissenkorn, Mendelblit and Bar-Menachem. They emphasized that when a police officer is suspected of deviating from regulations, it is essential that he be investigated by a neutral organization that is not linked to the police, in contrast with the current situation, where some Justice Ministry investigators come from the police. The reform, according to Nissenkorn, will take effect in three months.

The three also announced that complaints submitted to the department concerning hate crimes, racism, homophobia or assaults against people with disabilities, will be handled more expeditiously. Such files will be closed only with the approval of the department head. Further personnel will be added to the department, drawn from the Ethiopian, ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities. A call center will also be opened to address public complaints. These changes will be implemented by the end of the year.

A senior official from the State Prosecuter’s Office told Haaretz that this reform was only window-dressing. “The move to replace cops with civilians began in 2015, and replacing three investigators does not constitute reform. Real reform will occur when the department files indictments against policemen and when dependence on the police is severed, instead of the two organizations working hand-in-hand, as they do now,” said this official.

When Nissenkorn, Mendelblit and Bar-Menachem began discussing introducing changes to the department, the justice minister told them that he wanted to make profound changes, given the fact that the number of indictments the department has been filing against police officers has continued to decline since 2018. In the first half of 2020, the department filed only 24 criminal indictments. Furthermore, Judge David Rosen has harshly criticized the conduct of the department, noting that a senior official in the department operated under what could be a conflict of interest.

Haaretz has learned that Bar-Menachem did not inform or update senior department officials about the plan. They only found out about it when it was announced to the public.

Last week, Deputy State Prosecutor Shlomo Lamberger spoke with people in the department, but did not tell them about the plan. Haaretz asked Nissenkorn for a list of public figures he consulted regarding the reform, but the minister refused to give such a list, saying he had consulted with senior officials in his ministry and with former justice ministers, as well as lawyers and lawmakers.

In 20 days, the state has to submit its response to a petition against a government decision to set up a committee to investigate operations in the department. This was instigated by former Justice Minister Amir Ohana. However, given the announcement made on Tuesday, the state could claim that such a committee is now redundant. Still, Nissenkorn must get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanuahu’s agreement to make such a claim, since the petition was filed against the prime minister.

It is likely that Ohana will vehemently oppose overturning the government decision and that Netanyahu will support him. The state will be represented by private lawyers in this petition, rather than by state prosecution attorneys, following Ohana’s request, which was approved by Mendelblit.

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