Renowned Israeli Expert Slashed U.S. Crime Rates. Why Isn't Israel Police Following His Lead?

As Israeli Arabs protest the deadly results of lax law enforcement, Hebrew University Prof. David Weisburd, whose doctrine has been hailed abroad, says he has the cure

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Israel Prize laureate Prof. David Weisburd in his home in Jerusalem, October 17, 2019.
Israel Prize laureate Prof. David Weisburd in his home in Jerusalem, October 17, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Prof. David Weisburd, laureate of the 2015 Israel Prize for criminology, is one of the world’s most prominent researchers on fighting crime. As violence within Israeli Arab communities continues to rise, prompting protests over insufficient police response to violence crime, he tells Haaretz: “Lowering crime rate is possible. There is no perfect plan, but with strategy that has proved itself abroad, it can happen. We are no different than other countries.”

But while law enforcement agencies across the world seek to consult this Hebrew University criminologist, the Israeli police has yet to contact him. “Maybe because a permanent police commissioner hasn't been appointed yet,” says Weisburd.

Just before Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s meeting with members of the Joint List alliance of Arab-majority parties, and after the number of murder victims in the Arab community exceeded 70 this year, Erdan’s advisers did pick up the phone to call Weisburd.

On Tuesday another man was killed in the Arab village of Ara in central Israeli, raising this year’s death toll in the Arab community to 75.

Demonstrators march in front the Israel Police headquarters in Ramle, central Israel, October 15, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

The strategy Weisburd proposes, for which he received the prestigious Stockholm Prize in Criminology, and that he teaches at George Mason University in Virginia, is known as “focused deterrence.” The method, which sounds rather simple, was developed by Weisburd and his colleagues at the Hebrew University and is based on the police focusing on so-called hot spots and main crime factors.

“The idea is that there is a very small group of people that generate most of the violence [within a community],” Weisburd says, explaining what he told Erdan’s advisers. “If we were to enter an Arab community today, everyone will know and point out those who are generating the violence. It’s always a handful, a few dozen, and everybody knows who they are.

"Violence doesn't prevail in 95 percent of Arab communities, and 99 percent of the population in these communities is normal," Weisburd Weisburd says. He adds that according to his method, the areas where most of the violent incidents have taken place are mapped in cooperation with the police and intelligence personnel who know how the gangs operate, and then comprehensive research is conducted while gathering information from the community itself.

The next stage in the focused deterrence strategy is summoning those suspected of being involved in criminal activity for a warning talk with the police. “The point is that the offender understands that he has more to lose than to gain from violence. To achieve this, all possible law enforcement agencies should be involved while applying the specific pressure that can deter and hurt [the offender] the most. The offender has to know he’s under a magnifying glass, that he’s being watched and that he’ll lose if he chooses to be violent,” Weisburd says.

Joint List leaders attend a demonstration in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum, northern Israel, October 3, 2019. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

But that’s not enough, he adds. “Deterrence has to come from within the community and its leaders. The imam as well as other community leaders must make clear to those prone to violence that their actions are morally wrong. The government and the community must not work against each other, but work together. If [Arab community members] are told by the community heads and the police that their conduct is wrong, it gives moral validity to end the violence and it works,” he says.

Decline in murder cases

Weisburd’s strategy, which mainly relies on direct contact with offenders, led to a decline in crime in most of the U.S. states where it was implemented. In 2010, focused deterrence was applied in Stockton, California, considered one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States and one of the 10 most dangerous ones. The result was a 40 percent decline in the murder rate. A similar operation was carried out in Chicago in 2007, which led to a 37 percent drop in murders.

The method was also used to fight other types of crimes, such as drug trafficking; crime rates were reduced in most places where police invested time and effort to eradicate illegal activities.

In order to prevent crimes by gangs of Asian youths in Massachusetts, the police worked to deter adults of Asian descent who used the gangs for illegal gambling. The police warned the adults that the young offenders’ violence would lead them to lose their legal gambling businesses, giving the adults an incentive in keeping the youths in line.

Most crime surveyed in the United States is gang-related, but Weisburd doesn’t see a major difference there as compared to Israel. “You can always say that in the United States the national Israeli-Palestinian struggle doesn’t exist, but not everything is for or against Zionism. If you think that relations with the police are good in poor neighborhoods and black population centers, that they see Trump as a wonderful leader and they think there’s no discrimination, you’re living in another world. The problems are the same problems and the feelings are the same feelings. There, too, they feel the police are against them.”

Prof. David Weisburd awarded the Israel Prize by Benjamin Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem, September 21, 2015.Credit: Gil Yohanan

According to Weisburd, what works in the U.S. could also work in Israel. “The situation in the Arab communities in Israel is even better than in black communities, immigrant or poor communities in the United States. The communities in Israel are mostly well-off and educated. They simply want less crime. And therefore it’s a mistake to say, like Erdan has said, that there’s a culture of violence [there], because in the end it’s a small minority that can be dealt with.”

The plan Weisburd proposes requires research, human resources and mainly the desire to implement it. Until a little over a year ago, he frequently advised the police. Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich considered academics a significant source of advice, and criminologists were given access to police data.

Many in the police didn’t like Alsheich’s approach of using data as a key factor in fighting crime, and saw it as a method of someone who was brought in from the outside, to make up for his lack of police experience. The current, interim commissioner, Roni Cohen, has almost abandoned Alsheich’s Preemptive Strategy and Executive Focus Plan, or at least considers it less important.

Experience preferred

The fight against crime in Arab communities manifests itself chiefly in bolstering police personnel. More than 1,000 officers, mainly from the Border Police, have been added to the force to focus on the Israeli Arab towns of Jisr al-Zarqa, Umm al-Fahm and Acre, north of Haifa, among other locales. The police force has opened more police stations and will hold an operation to collect illegal weapons, with those surrendering their arms being given immunity from prosecution. Arab community leaders will also be enlisted to assist the police to end the violence.

The explanations of Weisburd and his colleagues might sound unrealistic to police officers looking for answers to violence in Arab towns like Tuba Zangaria or Taibeh. The police’s tendency to rely on personal experience and belittle work based on research is common in Israel and elsewhere in the world.

Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich speaks at an event at Tel Aviv University, May 23, 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A survey conducted among 217 senior police officers was released at an Israeli Society of Criminology conference in June. The poll, conducted by police researchers together with Dr. Tal Jonathan-Zamir of Hebrew University, asked respondents where they saw research in fight against crime. While 57 percent said they supported research-based crime fighting, the senior officers said that when it comes to decision-making in real time, they rely on their personal experience and common sense.

According to the authors of the study, the Israel Police are no different than police forces elsewhere in the world, and efforts to have them rely less on personal experience and more on research are doomed to fail. Moreover, the researchers concluded that relying on personal experience is not necessarily a bad thing.

“Some claim that in complex situations in the real world, especially under pressure, there is no substitute for automatic, fast decision-making based on experience and intuition,” the authors of the study said, adding that research and personal experience should not be seen as contradicting each other, but that both are necessary for effective police work.

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