The Israeli Justice Ministry has released new details about the investigation into an off-duty police officer's fatal shooting of Ethiopian Israeli 18-year-old Solomon Teka.
This information supports the police officer's account of having fired a lethal bullet after being hit by stones thrown by the deceased.
These details haven't changed the ministry's decision, announced in November, to charge the officer with negligent homicide. However, they do shed some light on key controversial aspects of the case.
Teka died after the officer shot a bullet that ricocheted off the ground, during the altercation in a park in the Kiryat Haim neighborhood north of Haifa.
The details released by the ministry department in charge of investigating police misconduct attest that traces of DNA had been found in the park that support the officer's account that he suffered bruises from stones Teka had thrown at him. Information on forensics tests indicate that sizable quantities of alcohol and hashish were found in Teka's remains.
The latest findings also reveal that two teenagers who initially said they had witnessed the incident later testified to department officials that they lied, and weren’t even in the area at the time. One said he had deliberately lied so the officer would be punished for Teka's death.
These findings led some prosecutors to argue that the criminal case against the cop should be closed and that he should face disciplinary proceedings instead. However, prosecutors unanimously agree that even if the circumstances weren’t as they originally thought, Teka should not have died as a result of the confrontation. Prosecutors also agree on the the fact that the policeman had fired at the ground rather than into the air calls for charging him with negligent homicide.
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The newly published details also conclude that the policeman gave an accurate account as to why he got involved in the confrontation. They largely confirm the officer’s version of events, according to which he was in a park with his wife and children when his wife pointed out that a boy, who it later transpired was 13, was giving money to four other teens and it seemed to her they were extorting him. The officer then walked over to the teens, showed them his badge and asked them to empty their pockets.
After the boy denied that anything bad had been done to him, Teka, the oldest of the teens, came over and accused the policeman of being a fraud with a fake badge. When the officer showed them his gun as proof that he was a cop, the teens scoffed at him, calling the weapon a toy gun. Teka threatened and cursed at the officer and others in the group joined in, the findings show.
The four teens denied extorting the other boy and insisted that the officer had started up with them for no reason,but in questioning later by ministry investigators the boy of 13 said the other youths had in fact extorted money from him.
One of them, a classmate, had told the boy he had ordered 50 shekels ($14) worth of marijuana for him, and threatened to raise the cost to 200 shekels if he didn't meet them right away at the park. Once at the park they insisted he give them more money, the boy said.
He said that the money they took from him was supposed to go to Teka, who he called the gang leader. Teka, he added, was the one who organized the drug supply.
The department found no evidence linking Teka to drug dealing, but neither the department nor the police investigated the alleged extortion.
“These findings are of incomparable importance, because this is an inseparable and important part of the incident,” wrote the officer’s lawyer, Yair Nadashi, in a brief to the department. “They support the policeman’s story about the unrestrainedly violent behavior of the deceased and his friends toward him. Yet despite their importance, these things weren’t detailed, or even hinted at, in the draft indictment.”
But the case against the officer isn't about whether or not the boy was extorted, or whether the officer was right to intervene in the dispute.
Curses and threats
The officer said that once matters heated up, he decided to leave the park. He also called the police, asking to send in a patrol car. But it was too late. Some of the teens began throwing stones at him, and some of these rocks hit him, he said.
According to the officer, Teka was one of the main stone-throwers. Some of Teka’s friends admitted that he had picked up stones and bricks, but only “to defend himself against the policeman, who had a gun,” one of them said. Another acknowledged that Teka had thrown a stone, but said he didn’t aim it at the policeman.
Later, the officer said, Teka and another teen followed him, cursed him, threatened him and pelted him with large rocks, some of which also hit him. He then pulled out his gun, told Teka to go away and, from a distance of two and a half meters, fired a single bullet at the ground near where Teka stood.
The bullet ricocheted, hitting Teka in the chest and killing him. Both the police national crime laboratory and the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir confirmed that the bullet had hit the ground and ricocheted.
Other findings support the officer's claim that he was struck by stones apparently thrown by Teka. The forensics report said that contusions found on the officer’s body, including a large bruise on his back, support his story that stones were thrown at him as he walked away from the scene. Moreover, DNA traces found on a stone in the area match Teka’s, while DNA found on another stone match that of the officer. Forensics tests also found a moderate level of alcohol in Teka’s body, as well as signs that he had smoked marijuana.
The findings also suggest that some evidence had been fabricated. Two 14-year-old boys who claimed to have witnessed the shooting later turned out not to have been at the scene.
These so-called witnesses became instant internet stars on the day of the incident when they were videotaped claiming, in front of a large audience, that the officer had shot Teka in the chest for no good reason. The video clip was circulated on the web and cited as proof that “Israeli policemen murder under the auspices of the law,” as one person shouted in the footage.
But when the two youths were summoned for questioning, they said that they hadn't been at the scene. One of them initially stuck to his story of seeing the shooting but later retracted it when questioned a second time, and said he had lied “to protect my friend” and so that “the officer would get what’s coming to him.”
The other youth told ministry investigators: “They dragged me there and I spoke under pressure. I said what my friend had told me, but I wasn’t there. I was at the gym.”
Why did the officer shoot into the air?
A source familiar with the case said the department had considered investigating some of Teka’s friends on suspicion of obstructing the investigation, but decided against it due to the case's sensitivity, the boys’ young ages and, above all, the trauma they had suffered by seeing their friend killed.
Several sources said it was difficult to get some people who were at the scene to testify. Some of them tried to avoid coming to the department or providing their cellphone numbers.
However, a senior source involved in the probe said members of the department, like some prosecutors, didn’t see these responses as attempts to undermine the investigation but rather as a sign of deep distrust of law enforcement on the part of these teens, some of whom are from poor families of Ethiopian origin.
One key witness who spoke with the department was a 14-year-old boy who was at the scene from the time the incident began until the shooting. He testified that the officer fired two shots at Teka, pausing between the shots. The crime lab, however, found that the officer had fired only one bullet. Of the 15 bullets that should have been in a magazine for that type of gun, 14 had remained.
None of the above answers the question as to why the officer fired at the ground rather than in the air, or why he opened fire at such close range. Even if Teka was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and even if the officer had been hit by stones and felt threatened, that doesn’t justify his decision to open fire.
The question is all the more puzzling given that he was a well-regarded policeman and recent graduate of an officers’ training program. He had plenty of police experience and good control of his weapon, and it puzzled investigators that the officer did not shoot in the air or in another direction.
In his defense, the officer said the area was surrounded by tall buildings and that firing into the air or in another direction could have hurt bystanders. But the department rejected this argument after prosecutors visited the scene and said they found no reason for the policeman not to have shot into the air.
“This was pure self-defense; I didn’t intend to kill anyone,” the officer told his interrogators. He added that after Teka was hit, he immediately called an ambulance.
“I unequivocally felt my life was in danger,” he said. “It would have been too bad if a stone had hit me in the head. And the next in line were my wife and children, who were standing nearby.”
A WhatsApp message sent to him by his wife about half an hour after the shooting was later found on his cellphone. “My love, I’m sorry, so sorry that I sent you to save one child and another was hurt,” she wrote. “How I wish I hadn’t heard that extortion.”
The officer also said under questioning that Teka had ignored his calls to halt and continued advancing at him, holding a stone. “I fired a single bullet at the ground, not at him or even beside him,” he said. “They threw stones the size of a fist, and some of them hit me.”
All he wanted was to get out of there alive, the officer said. “It was a waste; he was a child,” he said. “I didn’t see him as a terrorist or an enemy. I just wanted him to leave me alone.”
Nadashi, the officer's attorney, said that “the police’s rules of engagement don’t require shooting into the air in a life-threatening situation. The policeman acted proportionately when, despite the danger he was in and the option of shooting at the deceased’s body, he chose to fire a warning shot at the ground. He couldn’t have imagined that he’d be hurt as a result. He acted judiciously and chose a proportionate means of action to reduce the danger.”
Some of the investigators thought the officer should be charged with reckless homicide. But the prosecution feared this would send a message to policemen that they shouldn’t interfere in suspected crimes when off duty, lest they get into trouble.
Challenges for the legal system
The case is reminiscent of a 2009 case when border police officer Nir Somekh killed a neighbor wielding an iron rod, with three gunshots to the torso and head. Four years later, the Be'er Sheva District Court unanimously convicted Somekh of killing Ben Tal, and sent him to prison. But in 2016, after he had been jailed for three years, the Supreme Court overturned the verdict, ruling that Somekh had acted in self-defense.
In the Teka case, the policeman will have to prove that firing his gun had been a proportionate and necessary response, or as Justice Noam Solberg put it in the Somekh case, that “there had been no other less harmful way to deflect the attack.”
The Somekh ruling was widely felt to have expanded the argument for law enforcement officers using firearms in self-defense. But since then at least one other ruling appears to have challenged that decision.
In October, the High Court ordered ministry investigators to file charges against a policeman for the fatal shooting of Kheir al-Din Hamdan, 22, after the case had been closed citing grounds of absence of guilt, and the attorney general had rejected the family’s appeal. In that case involving an incident in Kafr Qana, Hamdan had hit the window of a police car with a kitchen knife in hand. But police officer Naor Yitzhak was found to have opened fire as Hamdan was retreating from the scene.
With Teka's death, the legal system faces yet another decision about the boundaries of self-defense. Ultimately any ruling will have to rely on the facts of the case, a senior Justice Ministry official said. "These facts indicate that the policeman was in violation of the law when he fired the fatal gunshot."
Zion Amir, the Teka family's lawyer, stated: "We cannot provide any concrete response because we have not yet received a response to our request for investigative material. Until then we cannot provide any detailed response with regard to the allegations. The negligence shown by the policeman who fired the gunshot is obvious and cries out from his own version of the shooting that he carried out against regulations, close to where the deceased stood. Without getting into the accuracy of allegations about the presence of alcohol or drugs in his (the victim's) blood, such claims have nothing to do with the police officer's guilt."