Shooter, an off-duty cop, placed on forced leave

Amid protests, task force to probe Ethiopian-Israeli complaints of cop violence

After fatal shooting of teenager, team formed by attorney general, police chief seek to improve response to grievances against officers

Ethiopian-Israelis and supporters protest in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2019 against police violence and discrimination following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah on July 1 in Haifa by an off-duty police officer. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Ethiopian-Israelis and supporters protest in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2019 against police violence and discrimination following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah on July 1 in Haifa by an off-duty police officer. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A police officer accused of fatally shooting an Ethiopian-Israeli teenager last month was placed on forced leave Tuesday, as the attorney general and Israel Police chief announced the formation of a task force to tackle complaints of police violence against members of the community.

The officer who killed 19-year-old Solomon Tekah last month — and who was released from house arrest earlier this week — was suspended for 30 days due to the investigation, police said.

The death of Tekah on June 30 sparked three days of nationwide protests, with members of the community saying it was emblematic of the racism they face in society on a daily basis and ongoing discriminatory treatment at the hands of the police.

In a joint statement Tuesday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and interim police chief Motti Cohen said they would form a special team to improve the handling of complaints against police by Ethiopian-Israelis.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a farewell ceremony for Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, at the Justice Ministry offices in Jerusalem on June 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The team, led by deputy attorney general Raz Nizri and deputy police chief Alon Asur, will provide prosecutors and police with “practical recommendations within a short time-frame” for providing a better response to grievances from the community.

Mandelblit and Cohen said the decision to form the team came as a result of discussions in recent days among top officials in the Justice Ministry and the Israel Police, in the wake of Tekah’s killing. It also followed meetings between the two men and representatives of the community, which were also attended by top prosecution and police officials.

The statement said the team would be encouraged to give police commanders broader authority to handle complaints of mistreatment.

But it also stressed that the rights of officers would be maintained, and the need to allow law-enforcement to do its work would be taken into account.

Israel Police interim chief Motti Cohen. (Israel Police/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)

The suspected cop, who has not been publicly named, was off duty when he shot Tekah in Haifa. He has claimed he was trying to break up a street fight and was set upon by three youths who hurled stones at him, endangering his life.

The officer said he did not target Tekah, and instead fired at the ground. A Police Internal Investigations Department probe found that the bullet ricocheted on the ground and hit Tekah, fatally wounding him.

The officer was released from house arrest on bail Monday, with restrictions, leading to further protests. He is reportedly expected to face charges of reckless homicide, which carries a sentence of up to 12 years in jail.

This new categorization, which came into existence five days ago in a justice system reform, is applicable when a suspect is thought to have taken an unreasonable risk but without the intention of causing death — e.g., playing with a loaded weapon or driving dangerously.

According to Hebrew-language media reports Monday, the Police Internal Investigations Department said the investigation into the shooting has been completed and the case transferred to the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Family members and supporters attend a ceremony in memory of 19-year-old Ethiopian, Solomon Tekah, who was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer, on June 30, 2019, in Kiryat Haim, July 10, 2019. ( Flash90)

Tekah’s family has criticized the apparent decision to downgrade the offense from manslaughter to reckless homicide, saying it showed “a tendency to attribute reduced responsibility to a police officer who killed our loved one in his prime.”

The shooting incident immediately sparked renewed accusations of police brutality and racism toward the Ethiopian community. Days after the shooting, protesters across Israel blocked roads, burned tires and denounced what they said is systemic discrimination against Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

The demonstrations escalated after Tekah’s funeral, when some protesters set vehicles on fire, overturned a police car and clashed with officers and others who tried to break through their makeshift roadblocks.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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