With Misconduct Cases in Free Fall, Israeli Police Oversight Unit Under Scrutiny

Sources inside Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct speak of fewer indictments, more alleged corruption and squabbling and growing accusations of racism within the unit

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Pictures of Eyad Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man who was shot and killed by police officers in Jerusalem, stuck to the door of the police investigation unit, Jerusalem, June 2020.
Pictures of Eyad Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian man who was shot and killed by police officers in Jerusalem, stuck to the door of the police investigation unit, Jerusalem, June 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

In the first half of 2020, the unit in Israel's Justice Ministry  that investigates police misconduct filed only 24 indictments against police officers for criminal offenses, showing a dramatic drop over the past two and a half years.

This is is an especially low figure given that the number of encounters between police and citizens has risen sharply during the coronavirus crisis, with the force issuing of fines for not complying with regulations. This downward trend started under the leadership of Keren Bar-Menachem, who became head of the investigations unit in 2018: In all of 2019, it filed 65 indictments against police officers, down from 69 in 2018. The year before Bar-Menachem took over, the unit filed a record high 124 indictments.

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“For 24 indictments in six months, you don’t need a special department,” says an official in the State Attorney’s Office. “It’s an embarrassing amount that highlights the trend in Mahash," referring to the unit's Hebrew acronym, "to avoid indictments against police officers by means of a ‘conditional arrangement’ or by transferring cases of excessive use of force to disciplinary handling by the police. It tightens the ties with the police.”

The figures are coming to light following a series of decisions by David Rozen, ombudsman of the State Attorney’s Office, against the unit, including serious criticism of the department’s conduct and revealing major disagreements within the unit between Bar-Menachem and unit officials.

Rozen criticized Bar-Menachem's leadership in several cases, including the decision to allow a complainant to photograph investigative materials and the lack of investigation of claims against officials in the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit. In another decision, he criticized the conduct of a senior investigator, a police detective on loan to the unit, who canceled a traffic ticket he received and cited Bar-Menachem’s support for his actions.

Head of the Mahash police investigation unit, Keren Bar-Menachem, 2019.
Head of the Mahash police investigation unit, Keren Bar-Menachem, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Tensions in the department

“There’s a lack of trust on Bar-Menachem’s part toward many in the unit,” says one official. “There are some she doesn’t speak to at all and it affects the unit’s work.”

Among the incidents that caused tension was the investigation of the shooting of Solomon Teka and, more recently, the shooting of Eyad Hallaq. In both cases, the Justice Ministry's unit was very critical of the way the investigations were conducted.

For example, after the shooting of Solomon Teka, Police Superintendent Rotem Gil, who was in charge of the investigation, did not visit the scene until several days after the event, leaving it instead to a junior investigator. Gil was on holiday in Eilat.

In the case of Eyad Hallaq, an attempt at a reenactment was made without the knowledge of officials in the department and some of the investigators, raising tensions within the unit.

A few weeks ago, an anonymous letter was circulated among the entire department - it was apparentlly seen by Rozen as well – accusing Gil of keeping in detention a police officer suspected of sex offenses, despite the fact the suspicions had been definitively lifted. The suspect was eventually released and the case against him is about to be closed.

Haaretz has learned that the complaint concerned a Border Police officer who was arrested in the wake of severe suspicions, but then the investigation uncovered significant contradictions in the complainant’s version of events.

The man’s detention was extended twice, until he was finally released after a week.

Accusations of racism

The tension was also apparent this week as Bar-Menachem decided to fire one of the department’s investigators, claiming he engaged in unprofessional conduct.

The investigator is an Ethiopian-Israeli who was recruited to the unit two years ago in the wake of public criticism of the department for its handling of complaints from the Ethiopian community against the police, and following a report by former Justice Ministry director general Emmy Palmor.

But the investigator applied for an injunction against Bar-Menachem, claiming that he was discriminated against and was fired for racist reasons. The claims follow a video distributed in the unit by the investigator’s superior showing footage of an operation in East Jerusalem, with the Ethiopian-Israeli investigator’s image followed by the caption: “Love your neighbor even if he isn’t like you.”

Protesters north of Haifa, Israel, July 3, 2019.
Ethiopian Israelis protest racism in the police force, near Haifa, Israel, July 3, 2019.Credit: Rami Shllush

The investigator argued to the labor court that “the crude implication” of the video was discriminatory and racist in intent.

In his deposition, the investigator said that two other officials, deputy department head Moshe Sa’ada and senior investigator Dubi Sherzer, told him there were no grounds for his dismissal but Bar-Menachem had still made the decision to fire him.

The investigator claimed that his superiors “were after him” from the very beginning and treated him in a discriminatory manner.

A hearing on the matter is slated to be held in the regional labor court in Jerusalem. Attorney Ayala Honigman, representing the plaintiff, is expected to summon department officials to testify, which is likely to bring more public attention to what has until now been a purely internal matter but affects every resident of Israel's rights.

In response to the report, the Justice Ministry unit released a statement saying that "Some of the claims brought forth in the article are baseless and unfounded. The data presented relates to several months, and therefore cannot be compared to data presented in the past as part of an annual report. Data from the past few years shows that the number of indictments [the unit] filed are similar to the number of indictments filed in other prosecution units."

It added that "Commissioner Rozen's decisions are completely unrelated to the cases mentioned in the article – Solomon Teka and Eyad Al-Hallaq, may they rest in peace. At the heart of the matter, the facts presented are far from reality:  Team leader Gil cut his vacation in Eilat short and arrived at the scene in the Solomon Teka case.

"The indictment in this affair was filed after an in-depth and comprehensive investigation and the case is now managed in a Haifa court and every claim otherwise is unfounded. In the matter of Eyad al-Hallaq, too, [the unit] is carrying out every investigative measure needed in order to swiftly uncover what really happened. All investigative system officials were updated in real time about the investigative activities," the statement read.

"We find it puzzling that this report failed to mention that Commissioner Rozen rejected the claim made in the anonymous letter, determining that carrying out the investigation as best possible was the interest of all those involved in it," the statement added.

"The decision to extend the detention [of the Border Police officer] was taken by many officials, including the head of the department and her deputy, as well as the prosecutor, based on the finding [the unit] had compiled at that time," the statement said.  

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