A policeman who shot and killed a man of Ethiopian descent who ran at him with a knife in January has been cleared of wrongdoing, the Justice Ministry said Tuesday.
The killing of 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga sparked controversy and anger in his community, with many accusing police of a pattern of racism and abuse toward Ethiopian-Israelis. Biadga’s death led to a mass protest in Tel Aviv.
He was killed in his hometown of Bat Yam after, police said, he charged at an officer with a knife. His family had called police after he threatened his parents with the weapon. Relatives said he had mental health problems.
When officers arrived at the scene and called on Biadga to drop the knife, he lunged at them, leading an officer to first shout at him in warning, then fire at him twice.
In a statement, the ministry said the Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID), with the approval of State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, had found that the officer behaved properly during the incident.
It said the officer had opened fire due to feeling imminent danger to his life, and therefore his actions were deemed lawful. It also noted eyewitnesses had agreed that the officer was in real danger and had warned Biadga twice before shooting.
The ministry said claims that Biadga had been shot in the head or that he had been executed on the ground after being incapacitated had been carefully examined and found to be entirely false.
Despite its findings, the ministry said it had instructed police to review policy on handling suspects with possible mental health issues.
“This decision does not take away… from the massive tragedy experienced by the family of the deceased, or from the need for a broad review of events that led to the death of a young man who suffered from mental health difficulties,” the ministry said.
It said Biadga’s family had been notified of the findings.
The officer had been placed on leave when the investigation into his conduct was opened. There was no immediate word on if and when he would be reinstated.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has previously said he would work to ensure lessons were learned from the incident.
In the wake of the shooting, relatives had accused police of using excessive force.
“When a terrorist comes to carry out an attack they say ‘Don’t shoot’ and if you do shoot, then at the legs. But when this is a citizen they shoot at his upper body — that isn’t normal,” Biadga’s brother David said.
His brother-in-law Hagos Ubo said: “They shot a person in the head in the crosswalk. Why not shoot in the air? They immediately shoot at the head in order to kill.”
Speaking to the Haaretz daily after the incident, a witness said the officer involved had only moments to open fire before the suspected attacker would have stabbed him.
“If the cop had waited another half a second he would have been stabbed with the knife,” the witness, who was not named, said. “It was clear he had to shoot. He was in immediate life-threatening danger. The whole thing happened really quickly, and he didn’t have time.”
The case led thousands of Israelis to protest against alleged police brutality and rampant discrimination toward the Ethiopian-Israeli community at a demonstration in Tel Aviv.
Protesters had said an investigation by the PIID was not enough, and had demanded a higher-level commission of inquiry headed by a judge.
More than 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, most of them having immigrated in two waves in 1984 and 1991. But many have struggled to integrate into Israeli society and there are lingering accusations of discrimination.