Much Mumbling From the Police Force

It is not at all nice to see a top police commander with an embarrassed smirk standing in front of three grim state interrogators and saying: "I don't know, I never heard about it, I don't remember."

It is not at all nice to see a top police commander with an embarrassed smirk standing in front of three grim state interrogators and saying: "I don't know, I never heard about it, I don't remember."

It's not so nice to hear a deputy commander mumble "there was a mistake" and "the policemen's versions are unreasonable." Deputy commander Moshe Waldman, the Valley sub-district commander, who testified on Wednesday at the Or commission, was nothing out of the ordinary.

There were other police officers whose appearance before the commission has been nothing but embarrassing. There are contradictions in their testimony, there is their indifference to lives (Arab lives that is), professional incompetence, and transparent efforts to cover up their failures. All of this adds up to a grave portrait of the police in general and not just in regard to the events of last September and October.

It is a picture that requires Public Security Minister Uzi Landau's urgent attention to deal with real, not marginal, issues and to exert all his time and energy in improving the professional training of the police and introducing proper internal control and reporting mechanisms.

The Or judicial commission of inquiry hasn't yet finished its job and its findings will speak for themselves. The impression gained from the testimony so far may yet change - for example, when Commander Alik Ron testifies this week. Nonetheless, two grave aspects of police behavior are already glaringly apparent - and it will be a major surprise if the commission doesn't point them out in its conclusions.

The first is the utter indifference of officers and street patrolmen to the killing of Arabs - citizens of the state. The second is the way the police investigates its own activities. From the testimony so far, it is impossible to shake off the impression that the senior commanders of the police and the policemen on the front line facing the Arab demonstrators, weren't sufficiently sensitive to the significance of the decision to open fire with live ammunition.

The way in which the decision was made to use live ammo - by order from the high command far removed from the scene - and the equanimity with which, in retrospect, they dealt with the fatal incidents. Waldman admitted he didn't even look into the circumstances in which two people were killed in Nazareth. All this leads to the inevitable gloomy conclusion that the police wouldn't have behaved the way they did if the demonstrators and victims had been Jews.

The same holds true for how the police dealt with their mistakes. The Or commission learned that the Northern District Command investigated in an off-hand manner. The investigative teams were appointed inside the sub-districts - to investigate their own colleagues' actions, and the investigators didn't question their superiors. The investigative teams did not get truthful reports - and neither did the Or commission. The conclusions reached by the investigators about all the various incidents were the same - Arabs, not policemen, killed fellow Arabs.

Waldman was publicly embarrassed when, under pressure from the commission, he was forced to admit he never checked the shells of the bullets fired in Nazareth. Only when the commission physically handed over the shells did he learn that one of them was from live ammunition.

The shells had been in his hands before, provided by the deputy mayor of Nazareth, but Waldman never bothered to have his officers find the bullets or send them for forensic testing. He he didn't even bother to check them.

This apparently is not the right time to make demands of the police. They are under tremendous pressure trying to prevent terrorist attacks. The trouble is, there's never a right time to demand the police mend their ways.

But it is precisely because intelligence assessments say more conflict with the Arab community is possible in the continuing security crisis that the government and Minister Landau must shake the force out of its complacency.

Its faulty behavior 11 months ago has clouded the seriousness of the Arab demonstrations and its implications, making it easier for spokesmen for the Arab community to erase the events from our collective memory.