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Police chief transfers cop who killed Ethiopian-Israeli teen to fire department

After meeting family of Solomon Tekah, whose killing in 2019 sparked nationwide protests, Shabtai backs off decision to reinstate officer to police service, calls for restraint

Police Commissioner Yaacov Shabtai (3R) and Deputy Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan (C) meets with the family of Solomon Tekah on February 12,2021 (Israel Police)
Police Commissioner Yaacov Shabtai (3R) and Deputy Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan (C) meets with the family of Solomon Tekah on February 12,2021 (Israel Police)

Amid mounting anger, Israel’s police chief said Friday that an officer charged with causing the shooting death of a teenager of Ethiopian descent in 2019 will not return to his former position, but will be transferred for now to the Fire and Rescue Department.

The decision came after Police Commissioner Yaacov (Kobi) Shabtai and Deputy Public Security Minister Gadi Yevarkan, who is also from the Ethiopian community, met Friday with the family of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah, a day after it was announced that the officer will return to his former position on Sunday.

“After serious deliberations regarding the decision to reinstate him to active duty, I have decided the best path will be to second him to the Fire and Rescue Department where he will serve until the end of the legal proceedings against him,” said Shabtai, who called Tekah’s killing “regrettable and tragic.”

The announcement of the officer’s return had caused an outcry among Israel’s Ethiopian community, which perceived the death of Tekah in Haifa as a reflection of racism and discrimination within the police ranks, and held mass protests for several weeks.

Worka and Wbjig Tekah hold a picture of their son Solomon Tekah, 19, who was killed by an off duty police officer, at their home in the Israeli city of Haifa, on July 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Zion Amir, the lawyer for the Tekah family, said Thursday the family has “voiced shock and astonishment over this outrageous decision to reinstate an officer standing a criminal trial that hasn’t ended, and which we learned about from the media.”

Yami, Tekah’s sister, said: “I’m shocked. I’m shaking. I don’t believe it. I feel like they stabbed me in the heart. I expect the police commissioner to cancel this illogical decision today.”

Following Friday’s announcement, Tekah’s father Worka said that for now he was satisfied and called for restraint from the Ethiopian community.

“The commissioner told me in his words that the officer who killed my son will not return to the police,” he told Channel 12. “I ask all the young people who planned to go and protest, please do not. We will wait patiently until the end of the trial.”

“What broke me yesterday was imagining the officer again wearing a police uniform, but now that will not happen,” he said.

Shabtai also called on all parties to act responsibly.

Police detain protesters as Ethiopians and supporters demonstrate against police violence and discrimination following the death of 19-year-old Ethiopian, Solomon Tekah who was shot and killed in Kiryat Haim by an off-duty police officer, in Jerusalem, July 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I support the police in their work, but at the same time I continue to view our moral obligations to be responsive to the public and their concerns,” he said.

The Haaretz daily, quoting police sources, said that Shabtai had not been briefed on the decision to return the officer to duty.

The officer, whose name is barred from publication by court order, has been accused of recklessly causing Tekah’s death by firing a bullet at the ground — from where it bounced and hit the teen — rather than firing warning shots in the air.

Shabtai also met with the officer at his home to inform him of the decision. “I know that you and your family have faced a difficult period since the tragic incident and we support you,” he told the officer.

The Ynet news site said that the decision to transfer the officer to the fire department was made with his consent.

On Thursday, the  Justice Ministry said the decision was made “after deeply examining the evidence and weighing the entire circumstances and arguments heard during the disciplinary hearing.”

The shooting occurred in the Haifa neighborhood of Kiryat Haim. According to an investigation, the off-duty officer, who was with his children, intervened after his wife noticed that some teenagers had taken money from another boy. He then alerted the police hotline to the alleged theft, but the dispatched police car was delayed.

In the interim, according to the investigation, the officer and his family members were pelted with stones, including by Tekah, prompting the officer to draw his weapon and fire at the ground. The bullet ricocheted and killed Tekah.

The killing of Tekah sparked nationwide protests, some of which turned violent. It immediately drew renewed accusations of police brutality and racism toward Israelis of Ethiopian descent. Days after the shooting, protesters across Israel blocked roads, burned tires, and denounced what they said was systemic discrimination against the community.

A car was set on fire after being attacked by rioters during a protest following the death of 19-year-old Ethiopian, Solomon Tekah who was shot and killed in Kiryat Haim by an off-duty police officer, in Tel Aviv, July 2, 2019. (Flash90)

The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department said that while the officer was in danger at the time, it was not life-threatening and under no circumstances should he have fired at the ground.

He was charged with negligent homicide, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Tekah’s death followed other alleged incidents of racism by police. Six months earlier, Yehuda Biadga, 24, a mentally ill Ethiopian-Israeli, was shot and killed by police who say he charged an officer while brandishing a knife.

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