Head of Israeli Unit Probing Police: Try to Avoid Arresting Cops Suspected of Wrongdoing

According to the law enforcement officials, the Justice Ministry’s Keren Bar-Menachem sees her unit’s role as ‘providing a service to the police’

The Justice Ministry's Keren Bar-Menachem, standing at left, and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich at the Knesset, June 27, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

The new head of the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct has told associates that the unit should avoid as much as possible arresting police officers suspected of criminal offenses, law enforcement officials told Haaretz.

Keren Bar-Menachem, who took up her post two months ago, told prosecutors that she considers the unit’s role as “providing a service to the police,” the officials said.

Her remarks come against the backdrop of the poor relations between the unit’s previous head, Uri Carmel, and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich over events at Umm al-Hiran in the south, where last year a local resident, Yakub Abu Al-Kiyan, was shot and killed when police wrongly suspected him of a car-ramming attack.

This happened moments before Al-Kiyan’s car ran over and killed police officer Erez Levi. Alsheich took the unit to task over its investigation of the incident.

Another sore point has been the investigation into the former head of the anti-corruption unit, Roni Ritman, who was a suspect in a sexual harassment case that was eventually closed.

Law enforcement officials said Bar-Menachem, a former senior prosecutor who worked closely with the police, has expressed great admiration for the force, saying that any arrest of a police officer must be considered very carefully.

According to the officials, Bar-Menachem’s policy was tested recently when she blocked the arrest of police officers suspected of serious offenses and simply released them under restrictions.

According to one official, Bar-Menachem told the unit’s investigators that they should “maintain the dignity of the police under questioning” in light of the unit’s conduct in certain investigations after which it faced civil suits. In one such suit, former Hadera police chief Ilan Sardal is suing the unit and some of its investigators for allegedly humiliating him during questioning.

One associate quoted Bar-Menachem as saying that “the relationship between the unit and the police must be healed.”

According to the officials, after becoming head of the unit, Bar-Menachem launched talks with the investigators’ union, which recently joined the Histadrut labor federation and has begun efforts to improve investigators’ conditions.

This week, for the first time since taking up her post, Bar-Menachem – with Alsheich – attended a meeting of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee to discuss the relationship between the Justice Ministry unit and the police.

Her first words to the committee were: “As someone who has known the police for 20 years, this is an excellent organization doing sacred work. It’s in the interest of us all that this organization be as clean as possible, and that we allow it to act. In the same breath, it’s important for me to say that if in the police there is an officer who did wrong, whether high-ranking or low, it’s in my interest and the commissioner’s that the organization be as clean as possible.”

Bar-Menachem told the committee that the unit’s working relationship with the police was “excellent,” and listed cases where the police and the unit were investigating jointly.

Her remarks contradict statements by Carmel, the former unit head, who in a farewell speech in February criticized the police’s top brass.

“While other units in the prosecution work in full synchronization with the police, the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct works in a different space, quite isolated,” Carmel said.

He added: “The unit’s investigations might embarrass the police and even get its leaders in trouble in terms of command or the public.” Carmel also said that due to recent investigations the unit was conducting, it had been attacked over the past year “by various officials in the police, baselessly and in a manner unprecedented in its harshness.”

For its part, the unit said that its responsibilities were complex and that “it must robustly fight offenders in the police and uncompromisingly seek the truth in cases of unwarranted violence, abuse and misuse of power and authority, especially when the complainants are weaker members of society suffering from over-policing.”

The unit added in its statement: “At the same time, the unit must avoid over-enforcement and remember that summoning a police officer who has fulfilled his role legally in complex operational situations for an unnecessary investigation, without a reasonable basis for suspicion, could dissuade the wider circle of good police officers from carrying out their duties ... sometimes risking their lives.”

The unit said it would not hesitate to investigate, arrest and try an officer who had committed an offense, no matter what the rank, and “any claim to the contrary is utterly false.”

“Meanwhile, out of recognition that the criminal code to which the unit is obligated is not the be-all and end-all, there is also importance to actions implemented by the police senior command,” the unit said.

It said it often gives a file to the police that is not ready for criminal proceedings but contains evidence of improper conduct by a police officer. In such cases, the response of the police brass “in whose power it is to examine the findings on the ethical level and decide on the officer’s future and the message conveyed to the police” is very important.