Israel's Police Can Police Themselves

The decision to appoint an outsider – Gal Hirsch or anyone else – underestimates the complexity of running and reforming such a complex organization as the Israel Police.

Tomer Appelbaum

The failures of the 1973 Yom Kippur War exposed all the weaknesses of the Israel Defense Forces. This vaunted army, which just six years earlier had vanquished three Arab armies in six days, was revealed to be complacent and contemptuous, was shackled by mistaken conceptions, bereft of internal auditing systems that could challenge conventional wisdom, and unprofessional in its assessments. Even worse, after the October 1973 war, the top brass engaged in mutual recriminations and no one took responsibility for the terrible failures – in the process besmirching the army’s own values.

The infighting reached its peak with the publication of the Agranat Commission’s report. The official panel that looked into the failures of the war recommended the dismissals of the chief of staff and head of the IDF Intelligence Corps, and ended the public’s blind faith in the army. At that point, the government understood that none of the top brass could continue commanding the IDF. A young general, Mordechai “Motta” Gur – who had been the military attaché in Washington during the war – received the call to take over. He hadn’t been tainted by the war, or the infighting. Today, he is seen as the chief of staff who did more than anyone else to rehabilitate the army after that crisis.

It was clear the IDF needed a shake up, and that none of the General Staff could do that; instead, it had to be accomplished by someone from the outside with a high-enough rank.

Gur met all the criteria: He was a major general and, as far as is known, no one in the government was considering anyone below the No. 2 rank for the top spot. That’s because only a major general had the knowledge to lead an organization as important and complex as the IDF – and all this was at a time when the reputations of almost all the major generals had been sullied.

Not everyone can lead the police

Bad as it may be, the crisis over the numerous sexual harassment cases at the Israel Police in recent years is far less serious than the situation the IDF faced in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. And the police’s performance in recent years is also immeasurably better than the IDF during the 1973 war, despite failings like the fatal stabbing of Shira Banki at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem earlier this summer.

In addition, it is no less complex an organization than the IDF, which is only deployed along the borders and faces a distinct enemy. Indeed, there are those who say the Israel Police is even more complex. It numbers some 30,000 officers and 37,000 volunteers, and has a budget of 10 billion shekels ($2.5 billion). It operates nationwide, 24/7, engaged in thousands of tasks, including defense-related matters as well as criminal investigations, traffic enforcement and routine work. Then there are the community patrols, maintaining order in poorer areas, juvenile crime, and on and on.

It’s a particularly complex organization, yet Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and much of the public seem to see the police as some kind of scout movement that anyone can oversee, even if they never pounded the beat or oversaw a criminal investigation. Erdan’s controversial nomination of an outsider – former IDF Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch – as the next Israel Police commissioner reflects that mistaken view.

This superficial thinking that an outsider can do the job reveals ignorance on the part of those who subscribe to it. A person who believes that anyone can command the police, without any professional knowledge, familiarity with the ins-and-outs of the agency, understanding of its organizational DNA, knowledge of the law or the capacity to defend a position before the attorney general, is someone who sees no value in police work as a profession.

In practice, relating to the police as unprofessional serves to undermine public confidence in the force, lending a hand to its destruction in the guise of attempting to protect it.

Substantial progress

The most outrageous aspect of this stance is that it has no basis in fact. The claim that the force has deteriorated, that its administration is fundamentally flawed and that its senior officers can’t be relied upon – all this is unfounded. Unlike the IDF during the Yom Kippur War, the police as a body does engage in self-examination and acts to correct its deficiencies.

Take the crisis over sexual harassment. The affair surfaced during the tenure of recent police chief Yohanan Danino, after he saw the results of a sexual-harassment survey conducted by the IDF chief of staff’s adviser on women’s issues – which showed that harassment was a bigger problem in the police than the army: while one in seven female soldiers said they were harassed during their army service, the figure was one in four for those loaned to the police.

In response, Danino appointed a women’s adviser and established a system to deal with harassment cases. The system was aimed at encouraging policewomen to complain, and quickly bore fruit. A large number of internal investigations began, including four in which police major generals suspected of infractions were forced to resign.

Although it’s clearly no source of pride to have four senior commanders suspected of sexual harassment, Israel Police still deserved credit for taking the initiative to uncover the phenomenon and pave the way to eliminating it.

Recently, the police conducted their own survey of sexual harassment of female soldiers on loan to the police. Coming five years after the initial survey and the establishment of a reporting mechanism for victims, the police had made considerable progress, with just one in 13 soldiers reporting they had been harassed.

Who needs a shake up?

That’s not the only progress made by the Israel Police. Over the past five years, an evaluation system has been established to measure the performance of every unit and police station – based on preset goals for eliminating major crimes, police officers’ job satisfaction and the public’s satisfaction with the police.

Now, every station commander is evaluated in the three areas, and the results are available for every police unit to see. Exposing a station’s low performance rating provides a substantial impetus for improvement.

The downside is that the average grades are 79 for crime deterrence; 71 for police job satisfaction; and just 63 for public satisfaction. But by doing its own polling, the police acknowledges it has work ahead of it. And the fact performance is being assessed is a major achievement.

Sources providing advice to police departments have praised the new evaluation system, saying its effects are slowly filtering through the ranks. Foreign police agencies are also sending people to Israel to examine it.

In addition, the Israel Police now performs reasonably well by international standards in some areas – such as the rate at which investigations result in indictments; the ratio of police in the field to those in administrative positions; and how police on patrol utilize their time. That doesn’t mean the department is outstanding, but its performance isn’t poor either – and it’s taking long-term steps to boost its performance.

Clearly, we should examine whether the systems put in place are effective. But only someone who understands the work of the department can make such an assessment. An outsider won’t have a clue how to begin to assess police operations, and certainly not how to institute structural and procedural changes. And an outsider won’t understand that the Israel Police doesn’t need to be shaken up. It just needs to step up its current efforts at improvement.

Such improvement requires a good commander who will continue to pursue the process, rather than publicly declaring that the police functions poorly or that it needs to be shaken up. Anyone who makes such comments will not be improving the Israel Police; instead, they will be acting to destroy it. Is that really what the public security minister wants?