Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich on Tuesday drew widespread condemnation after he appeared to say that it was “natural” for law-enforcement officers to be more suspicious of Ethiopian Israelis than of other citizens.
“Studies the world over, without exception, have shown that immigrants are invariably more involved in crime than others, and this should not come as a surprise,” Alsheich told a gathering of the Israel Bar Association in Tel Aviv, in response to a question about persistent accusations of police brutality and racial discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis.
Alsheich said studies have also shown that young people in general are more involved in crime and that “when the two come together, there’s a situation in which a given community is more involved than others in crime, statistically speaking.”
“When a police officer comes across a suspicious person [either young or from an immigrant background, or both], his brain suspects him more than if [the suspect] were someone else, it’s natural,” he continued, emphasizing that “over-policing is natural” when it comes to Ethiopians, due to the aforementioned statistics linking them, as members of an immigrant community, to higher crime rates.
The police chief indicated he was also thinking of Arab-Israelis and east Jerusalem Palestinians who come in contact with Israeli police officers.
Still, Alsheich added, the Israel Police has been working together with leaders in the Ethiopian-Israeli community in a bid to curb such over-policing.
Following an outcry, the police sent out a statement later Tuesday saying Alsheich “had no intention offending Israelis of Ethiopian origin.”
“The remarks were said, openly, with the intention of correcting and improving” the police force, said the statement.
Ethiopian-Israelis have long accused the police of brutality and abuse against members of the community. Last year, the community staged a series of mass demonstrations across the country, triggered by video footage showing a seemingly unprovoked police assault on an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier last April.
Thousands took to the streets demanding the government address the alleged systematic and institutionalized racism faced by the Ethiopian-Israeli community. Activists also expressed their frustration with what they said was the state’s shortcomings in addressing the quality of life of their community.
One of the leading activists involved in those protests, Gadi Yibarkan, said Tuesday that the police chief was “not particularly smart for openly saying that Israel was a racist country.”
“We are not migrant workers, we are Jews who returned to their country after some 2,500 years in exile,” Yibarkan said, adding that the police chief made it seem “understandable that police officers deal violently with black people and Arabs.”
Opposition lawmakers also harshly criticized Alsheich for his remarks, and the umbrella organization of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel demanded he resign.
“Not only is the commissioner failing to deal with police violence toward the Ethiopian community, he is encouraging it,” Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli said. “Young Ethiopian immigrants are not ‘migrants,’ they are Israeli in every way, and these type of comments are anything but ‘natural.’”
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint (Arab) List faction, said on Tuesday said he was not surprised to hear Alsheich make “racist and discriminatory” remarks.
“The commissioner needs to be reminded that it’s his job to serve and provide security for all Israeli citizens, not just white Jews,” he charged, adding that Israeli law enforcement “systematically mistreats the weaker sectors of the population.”
Meretz MK Michal Rozin also denounced Alsheich’s comments, and called on him to institute mandatory racism workshops for all police officers.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) came to Alsheich’s defense, saying Tuesday that the police chief was not justifying the “over-policing” phenomenon but was in fact saying the opposite.
“He said, bravely, that there was a problem and that the police was addressing it,” Erdan said of Alsheich, adding that he was “simply describing the thought-process of police officers, that has in the past led them to react wrongly.”
Erdan said he completely backed his police chief and his vision for the police force which has, in recent years been beset by a series of sex scandals, claims of incompetence, discrimination and excessive use of force.
In June, Channel 2 News reported that Israelis’ dissatisfaction with law enforcement authorities rose from 69 percent — where it had been hovering fairly consistently over the past 17 months — to 84% in recent weeks. The report found that “police are seen as corrupt, with officials unfit for various reasons.”
Weeks later, Alsheich announced that police officers would start wearing body cameras as part of a wider effort to boost confidence in law enforcement officials. The Public Security Ministry has earmarked NIS 40 million (USD $10 million) for the project, Alsheich said at the time.
Elie Leshem contributed to this report.