Police Preoccupied by Rearguard Action to Save Their Commissioner's Public Image

More than any previous police chief, Danino has invested considerable resources in public relations on behalf of the Israel Police.

Theoretically, the serious allegations against Jerusalem Police Chief Maj. Gen. Niso Shaham of sexual misconduct are a local issue which aren't likely to affect many Israelis or even too many policemen.

But several officers and spokesman who have worked with Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino say he sees this as a serious blow to the police's image - and his own.

More than any previous police chief, Danino has invested considerable resources in public relations on behalf of the Israel Police. When he took office in May 2011, he declared that one of his most important missions was to restore the public's faith in the police. Thus he feels that embarrassing cases like that of Shaham - and other recent incidents, like the failed handing of the murder of Gadi Vichman in Be'er Sheva - are pulling the rug out from under him.

"He feels as if they've kicked away the work of an entire year," said one confidant, who added that in the past week, "he's been walking around wondering what else is waiting for him around the bend."

The importance of the Israel Police's image was made clear at the outset, when Danino appointed an outsider - Hillel Partuk, formerly the Tel Aviv municipal spokesman - to serve as spokesman, believing the previous spokesman's department could not rebrand the police as Danino desired. The communications model Danino aspired to was that of former army spokesman Avi Benayahu, who helped boost the public image of the Israel Defense Forces after the Second Lebanon War.

As asked Partuk submitted a work plan including structural changes in the communications office, a marketing and branding plan and slogan depicting the police as a dependable organization with a high service orientation, and health program that would present the policemen in a more respectable light. Partuk set up the first national spokesman's office for the Israel Police, similar to the IDF Spokesman's unit. Indeed, Danino made it clear that he saw no reason why the police chief should be considered any less important than the IDF chief of staff.

Within weeks, however, it emerged that Partuk couldn't deliver the goods. About a month after taking office, there was a large joint army-police exercise in the south. Even beforehand, Danino stressed that he wanted to see the police prominently represented in the media the next day. By "prominently represented," he meant his picture should be in the papers along with that of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. But only Gantz's picture appeared, provoking Danino to lash out at the PR staff. Partuk ended up resigning only two months into the job.

His successor, Brig. Gen. Alon Levavi, has since been given unprecedented resources, particularly to develop new media projects, including a presence on social networks; the spokesman's unit now has 90 people, a huge leap in manpower compared to previous years.

At some point Danino began to understand that the IDF Spokesman's model can't be applied to the police: Details about a security incident on the Egyptian border can be concealed or revealed as the army sees fit, for instance, but it is impossible to control information when an incident occurs in central Tel Aviv and is documented by hundreds of cell-phone cameras.

Nevertheless, Danino continues to keep a close rein on the information situation. All police district or branch spokesmen are now subordinate to the central spokesman's unit, and not to their district or branch commanders as in the past. Over the past several months, Danino has also developed a habit of courting senior media commentators and dealing less with police beat reporters. His people say the chief believes that one positive piece by an influential columnist is worth more than all the negative news stories produced by beat reporters in an entire year.

Danino, through his spokespeople, has also taken to approaching editors if he suspects that a negative report is being prepared about him. These efforts are seen by journalists as a way for the police spokesman's department to "punish" crime reporters who file reports Danino dislikes. Journalists, of course, see this as an effort to undermine their status in their own workplaces.

Said the Israel Police: "We don't intend to relate to the false claims made by a reporter who regularly seeks to denigrate the work of the organization and the person who heads it. But it's symbolic that on the day that the government decides to cut hundreds of policemen, the paper chooses to deal with gossip and slander."

On target: Police chief Yohanan Danino posing at a convention earlier this year.
Moti Milrod