Police Officers Criticize Senior Brass Over Handling of Ethiopian-Israeli Protest

Israeli Policemen say leadership should have supported officer who fatally shot Solomon Teka, an unarmed teen

Israeli police officers arrest a protester, Netanya, Israel, July 8, 2019.
Nir Keidar

Police officers voiced rare criticism of the organization’s senior brass for their handling of the protests that followed the death of Solomon Teka, an Ethiopian Israeli teenager killed by a policeman two weeks ago.

Senior officers said that the police failed to forecast the extent and intensity of the Ethiopian community’s protests in the wake of the killing and argued that the police response to the protests should have been less restrained.

Some officers believe that even if the policeman who shot Teka made a mistake, officials should have stood behind him.

Some sources within and outside the organization are blaming the interim police commissioner, Maj. Gen. Motti Cohen.

>> Read more: Ethiopian Israelis are furious at 'white media' coverage of protests, and for a good reason | Analysis

In closed sessions, junior and senior officers said that police commanders did not sufficiently back the policeman who shot Teka and is now being investigated by the Justice Ministry's Police Investigations Unit.

“There was hardly any prior intelligence, there were huge gaps between what we prepared for and what occurred on the ground,” said one officer in a closed meeting. “We didn’t correctly assess the number of people who would show up at intersections, and some areas were completely abandoned.”

He gave examples of roads that were blocked and added, “Police stations were attacked in other places as well, where no adequate security was in place.”

Officers were also critical of the police department’s policy of containment during the protests. “Instead of demonstrating our presence, protesters paralyzed the country for many hours, without the police using even half of the measures they had for dispersing demonstrations,” said one senior officer. “The first line was manned by rookies or cadets, all in order to achieve ‘containment’. How much can you contain? The police lose their deterrence and public confidence because of such incidents.”

Another senior officer added: “Who’s heard of policemen locking themselves inside a station, waiting for an assault to end? Feelings are hard within the organization, mainly at lower levels … people want to serve, they are professional, but something bad is happening. Policemen only wait for their shift to end.” According to several sources, after hearing the criticism, Cohen stressed the need to allow the protests to take place while preventing violence that could lead to injuries or death, since this would have escalated confrontations between demonstrators and police.

Some police officers, mainly ones on the ground and their junior commanders, think the organization should have rallied behind the policeman who killed Teka. “A policeman has to know that even if he makes a mistake he will be supported, and that an official inquiry will investigate whether his actions were correct,” said one senior officer. Former senior officers agree with this view, but many do not want to say so publicly. However, Shlomi Katabi, the former head of the Judea and Samaria police district, told Haaretz that such backing is critical. “Every cop needs to know that the whole country is behind him. Even if he errs, the top brass has to tell everyone that the case is under investigation and that they back the policeman involved. Policemen now feel abandoned; they prefer to lie low in order not to be implicated in any problems. One shouldn’t defang policemen, otherwise society will pay a heavy price. The police are now present-absentees, they mustn’t be turned into an enfeebled entity.”

Following Teka’s death, Cohen said “policemen often have to operate under extreme conditions, dealing with complex situations, having to make quick and serious decisions based on their judgement. We must remember that every citizen or policeman is considered innocent until proven otherwise in court, even in such a tragic and unfortunate incident.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said a week after the shooting that the police should not be forgiving toward police brutality, and that a violent policeman should not remain on the police force.

Cohen talked about the clashes this week at a swearing-in ceremony for the new commander of the Northern District. “We must remember that restraint is power, power which obligates us as professionals, while allowing a legitimate expression of protest. In recent demonstrations, especially last week, we saw the exploitation of our desire to allow legitimate protests. Some members of the public resorted to serious violent acts against citizens and policemen, creating serious disruptions. Decisions that were made are my responsibility, based on my professional and operational experience. We will not allow assaults on our policemen or unbridled rioting; we’ll always act responsibly in enforcing the law wherever and whenever needed.” Former Deputy Commissioner Zohar Dvir and other senior officers backed Cohen’s handling of the situation since the demonstrations began.

Lessons learned from the earlier round of protests and the fact that protesters use social media and WhatsApp to organize road blocks have prompted the police to intensify their intelligence-gathering in an attempt to identify any planned blocking of roads in advance. The police are also trying to identify and locate protest leaders so they can summon them to police stations and warn them against allowing demonstrations to turn violent. The police estimate that further demonstration will take place, partly around the legal proceedings involving the policeman who shot Teka. They do not intend to allow any more intersections to be blocked. Protest leaders are planning a demonstration in front of the Knesset this week.

The police internal investigation is expected to wind down this week and the case will go to state prosecutors, who will decide whether to indict the policeman. Any decision, including the inclusion of the charge of negligent causing of death in the indictment, requires the assent of State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. The police continue to protect the shooter and his family in central Israel.

The police responded to this story, saying that “It’s regrettable that baseless statements make their way to the media anonymously. Over the last two weeks, the police have contended with a complex operational challenge. It was required to maintain a delicate and sensitive balance between allowing legitimate protest to take place while maintaining law and order. The interim commissioner determined the organization’s policy of restraint, allowing protesters to express their protest. When things turned violent and uncontrolled across the country, he instructed that this be addressed forcibly.”

It was also stated that “it is unclear where the anonymous statement relating to backing or the lack thereof of the policeman by senior brass came from. As soon as the internal investigation began, the police cannot refer to the incident, including the person at its head. One should be reminded, however, of what the interim commissioner said this week regarding a person’s presumed innocence until proven otherwise.”