The police as a public menace

Feb 19th, 2013 | By | Category: Featured Articles

When the person at fault in a traffic accident turns out to be the chief of police, different rules apply.

A screenshot of the video that captured the police chief's car running a red light.

A screenshot of the video showing the police chief’s car running a red light.

What happens when a police car carrying the country’s top cop runs a red light at a busy intersection and knocks a guy off his motorcycle? When it happened to Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino last week, the police’s first instinct appeared to be: blame the victim.

Danino was riding in the back seat of a police car in south Tel Aviv, on his way back from an afternoon meeting, when his car hit a civilian. Ironically, the accident occurred in an area police regularly stake out during rush hour, hoping to catch people making illegal turns.

However, instead of simply taking responsibility for the accident, police told reporters that it wasn’t clear who was responsible, hinting that the other driver, a 23-year-old man, had a history of traffic violations. They promised to investigate. Meanwhile, the motorcyclist, who had no idea the commissioner was riding in the car that hit him, was taken to the hospital.

A week later, a video of the accident emerged. Taken from a security camera outside one of the buildings on the street, the recording clearly showed that, while all of the other cars on the road slowed down as they approached the intersection, the commissioner’s vehicle tried to squeeze through after the light had already turned red, and rammed into oncoming traffic.

Only after that video began to appear on news websites did the police commissioner announce he was suspending his driver until the incident could be fully investigated.

Accidents happen, and police officers are human. The police will naturally attempt to paint this as an isolated incident, while reassuring the public that any guilty parties will be held responsible. But anyone who has had any contact with them would be hard pressed to believe them.

Behind the wheels of their patrol vehicles, police flagrantly violate traffic laws on a daily basis.

Whether their sirens are wailing or not, police cars are some of the most dangerous on the road. Worse than taxi drivers, worse than teenagers with music blasting from their speakers. They speed, ignore stop signs, swerve out of their lanes, drive against traffic and generally move around in a way that is reckless and dangerous to anyone nearby, especially pedestrians, cyclists and motorcycle riders. Living a block away from the station to which the commissioner was presumably headed when last week’s accident occurred, I see it almost every day.

The police would probably argue that they have to drive like this, but only in extenuating circumstances, in order to catch criminals and get to crime scenes quickly. But what if the cops’ recklessness on the roads is just a symptom of a broader organizational culture in which police feel they can act with total impunity?

I don’t know anyone in Jaffa who doesn’t have stories about obnoxious encounters with the police. I’ve had cops stop me on the street and ask for my ID, then curse at me when I ask them why they stopped me, telling me, “Cause I feel like it.” A cop once approached me outside a neighborhood pub, grabbed a bottle of beer out of my hand and then spilled it out on the ground. When I asked him what the problem was, he wrote down my name and ID number. I’ve seen cops beat an African refugee on the street, for no apparent reason.

When you need them, however, they are nowhere to be found. When a mentally ill woman was apparently gang-raped in broad daylight on a Tel Aviv beach last summer, witnesses who called the police said they never showed up. The same happened when a Be’er Sheva man was murdered last year outside his houseIn both cases, police claimed they were there. In both cases, it later turned out that they had apparently lied, then attempted to cover their tracks.

In an article published late last year, Haaretz reported finding at least 20 incidents in which police lied about their actions during the term of the current commissioner. The article cites cases in which policemen wrote false reports, lied under oath, made false arrests and lied about it in court, broke into houses without a search warrant and so on. None of these cops were “made an example of” and kicked out of the force. A couple were given a slap on the wrist. Some were promoted.

Last summer, police physically assaulted demonstrators at social-justice protests, then arrested them and accused them, falsely, of attacking police. And the list goes on.

Why do police in Israel behave this way?

Maybe it’s because of the blurring of the lines between the police, the Border Police and the IDF, which has allowed military norms and culture to seep into police work.

Maybe it’s because of the example they get from their superiors, like Commissioner Danino, who was filmed in 2011 speeding down at highway at 100 mph (he later claimed he couldn’t remember if he was in the car at the time or not).

Maybe it’s the government’s fault. Since 2009, Netanyahu’s internal security minister (in charge of overseeing the police) has been Yitzhak Aharonovich, himself a former police officer and a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s party. Lieberman’s ongoing legal troubles would probably have indicated to a more upright politician that his party should be kept away from such a post.

Whatever the reasons, the end result is that many citizens end up viewing the country’s police force as a kind of private militia, not a body with a mandate to protect and serve. When the very people who are supposed to be protecting the public act in a way that puts random people in danger, while treating regular civilians with arrogant disregard, it’s hard to put much faith in them.

This time, the price was paid by a 23-year-old guy on a motorcycle, who got off relatively easy. But considering the behavior of the police in this country, the next such incident is just a matter of time.  

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