Hours before a police officer shot dead 19-year-old Solomon Tekah on June 30, sparking mass protests across the country by Israelis of Ethiopian origin, the Justice Ministry’s Public Defenders’ Office issued a little-noticed report censuring the authorities’ poor record of investigating allegations of violence committed by the police.
The annual report, covering 2018, says that the Public Defender’s Office receives many complaints about police violence in the context of its work defending members of the public against charges. But, as in its previous reports, it laments what it describes as a continuing gap between the weak manner in which citizens’ complaints about police violence are treated and the keen fashion in which citizens are pursued when they are suspected of having attacked the police.
Only around a third of citizens’ complaints of police violence are investigated each year, the report says, and when probes do take place, they tend not to be thorough.
On Tuesday, a relative of Solomon Tekah echoed the expressions of many members of the Ethiopian Israeli community when he told the Ynet news site that the decision by the Police Investigations Department — known by its Hebrew acronym, Machash — to accept the version of the police officer who pulled the trigger that killed the teen was a whitewash. The officer said he had shot at the ground, and shrapnel had ricocheted up into Tekah’s body.
The reason that security camera footage taken at the scene of the shooting had not been made public was to “justify the killing so that the officer wouldn’t be exposed,” Amir Tekah complained. “It’s not the first investigation to be whitewashed.”
Also on Tuesday, Mordechai Kreuzer, an ultra-Orthodox resident of Beit Shemesh, northwest of Jerusalem, told Channel 13 that an incident in which police pulled him by his sidelock and allegedly beat him during a protest against a demolition order was “very painful and very scary.” The “contempt and humiliation” had shocked his family, he added.
Video footage from the protest the previous Friday was published by the Haredi news website Kikar HaShabbat, and showed part of the violence Kreuzer described in the Tuesday interview.
Weighing a government commission of inquiry
The recently appointed Justice Minister, Amir Ohana, said on Wednesday that he was weighing up the option of establishing a government committee of inquiry, headed by a judge, to look into events surrounding Tekah’s death in particular and, more generally, the concerns about Machash’s capacity to effectively investigate alleged police violence.
“Over recent days, we’ve heard from all sides that there’s a serious problem of confidence in the Police Internal Investigations Department,” he told a conference of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel, held in the southern city of Eilat. “These are not just Ethiopian immigrants — it’s a cross-sectoral problem. This does not mean that the criticism is justified; it may be due to irrelevant reasons. But if we do not conduct a thorough examination, how can we identify the root cause of the lack of trust? How can we handle it?
“So I am considering ordering the establishment of a government commission of inquiry headed by a judge, in order to get to the root of the problem and make decisions.”
Privately, according to Army Radio, Ohana has said he is weighing removing Machash from the Justice Ministry jurisdiction and making it independent.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is responsible for the police, appears to share the concern about Machash. He told Army Radio on Tuesday that there was an imperative to examine its effectiveness and that Ethiopian Israelis were not the only ones who feel it cannot be trusted. “We all heard yesterday at the [meeting of the] Ministerial Committee for the Integration of the Ethiopian Community that we must look into how to change the model of Machash. It appears that some of the department’s investigations are not effective or do not go deep enough. This requires a government examination,” he said.
Public Defender’s Office: 193 of 276 cases monitored were closed
In 2017, nearly 3,500 cases were opened against individuals accused of violent behavior toward police officers. “The cumulative experience of the Public Defenders’ Office shows that a significant portion of these cases [relate to] citizens from weak populations,” the Public Defender’s Office report says.
By contrast, out of 276 cases of complaints of police violence lodged by individuals whom public defenders were representing during 2018, 193 were closed, in most cases before they had been properly investigated.
The main target of the report’s ire is Machash. Statutorily independent of the police and staffed primarily by civilians without a police background, Machash works under the state prosecution and in turn, the Attorney General’s office in the Justice Ministry.
It is responsible for investigating and prosecuting (in regular courts) violations by police officers, focusing on criminal allegations which carry a minimum punishment of at least a year behind bars. It also examines disciplinary infractions, for which it can instruct (but not implement) disciplinary action. (Disciplinary instructions must be referred back to the police, where they are supposed to be addressed by the disciplinary department and even tried in a police disciplinary court.)
Machash has refused over the years to release data relating to complaints of police violence, on the curious grounds that its computerized system is not sufficiently sophisticated. Following a petition to the High Court last year by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, it announced that it was upgrading its computer system and would start publishing figures from January next year.
Still, an analysis of the general activities of Machash sourced from the Public Defender’s Office’s own annual reports shows that “most complaints submitted to the department are not thoroughly investigated, either because of a decision not to investigate at all or because a very preliminary investigation was carried out which did not lead to further inquiries.”
The report goes on: “Real investigations are carried out only in around a third of all complaints made each year, while the results of those investigations are characterized by a low rate of any action taken against the officers.”
During 2018, there was only one case in which a decision was made to charge officers who had been the subject of a complaint.
Although the report does not provide details, the reference appears to be to three Jerusalem policemen who were indicted in January 2018 over the alleged assault and intimidation of Palestinian detainees, including minors, at the Shalem police station in East Jerusalem, that included the use of a Belgian shepherd dog as a tool of intimidation.
In a separate incident on the same day, the accused policemen arrested two passengers of a car in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, according to the indictment. One of the officers allegedly entered the police vehicle and started beating up one of the passengers, whose hands were cuffed behind his back, punching him several times. At the police station, the same officer allegedly banged the man’s head against the door of an elevator and kicked him several times during the elevator ride.
No effort to examine independent material
Last August, the defender’s office met with the State Prosecution Service and Machash to once again air concerns that the latter was not investigating police violence allegations in the requisite manner.
During the meeting, the defender’s office raised cases in which Machash had decided not to even open a case following a complaint against an officer. In “many cases,” the report says, decisions about opening a file were made after police material had been reviewed, but without any effort to examine the claims independently. This stood in stark contrast to the police’s habit of seeking permission from Machash to fast track probes against people accused of attacking the police.
Current regulations relating to complaints by or against the police could, said the Public Defender’s Office, give the “mistaken impression” that citizens who complain about police behavior are put to a more stringent test than are police officers investigating citizens.
As a result of that meeting, the report says, the State Prosecutor forwarded the Public Defender’s Office request to the relevant professionals. Almost a year later, a response is still awaited.
Similar criticism of Machash’s behavior was expressed by the former State Comptroller Yosef Shapira in a stinging report he issued in May 2017.
Shapira noted that Machash was established on the assumption that charging a body independent of the police with investigating violations of police behavior “would help to preserve integrity within the police and would contribute to an increase in the public’s faith in the police.”
In practice, he went on, Machash not only closed most of the cases it received — around 90% of 6,320 such cases were shut in 2015 at various stages of processing. It focused on the criminal and evidentiary aspects of the files, rarely transferring cases for further disciplinary steps to be taken by the police, and depriving the system of valuable information that could help the police on a command and operational level.
Furthermore, according to the Public Defender’s Office report, police prosecutors deal with hundreds of complaints of police violence when they are supposed to forward such cases to Machash. While they will not address a complaint dealing with police violence alone, they will do so when an individual’s claim of violent treatment at the hands of the police is one of several allegations that the police is investigating against that individual.
In its new report, the Public Defender’s Office describes a series of successes in court in cases where allegations of police violence had been overlooked by Machash.
In one, the Eilat Magistrate’s Court froze proceedings against three defendants accused of attacking police after it emerged that the defendants had themselves accused the police of violence right from the start of their interrogation. While their complaint had been passed onto Machash, Machash had not carried out any examination, claiming that the three had failed to turn up to give their versions of the events. It transpired that letters inviting the three to give testimony had never arrived, and that Machash had no evidence that the letters were even sent. The court ordered that the case against the three defendants be frozen until Machash had properly investigated the police violence complaints.
In another case, the Jerusalem District Court instructed the state to hand over internal Machash documents relating to a defendant who had been charged with attacking police officers. As in the first case, the defendant had complained to Machash that he had been subject to extreme police violence. After four months, he was informed that its probe had been concluded and that his file had been sent to the State Prosecution for a decision. Ten months later, the same Machash dispatched a second letter saying that an investigation had not been carried out because the man’s complaint had not yielded any evidence of police wrongdoing. The court slammed Machash over its contradictory behavior and the Public Defenders’ Office requested that the defendant be acquitted. A response to that request is still awaited.
‘Conflict of interest’
In Israel, in a remnant from the British Mandate period, the authority to charge citizens is divided between the state prosecution, which deals with around ten percent of all cases, and police prosecutors, who appear in magistrates, district and juvenile courts to handle the remaining 90 percent of the caseload.
Already at the turn of the millennium, a state comptroller report highlighted the problematic issue of the police being able both to investigate and to prosecute, following which the government decided in 2001 to merge the police prosecution with the state prosecution at the Justice Ministry. But this was never implemented.
Indeed, in his last report before leaving office earlier this year, former State Comptroller Yosef Shapiro indicated that despite opposition to such a merger by the Attorney General and the state prosecution, the issue should be brought back to the government’s table for discussion.
The police, meanwhile, had not done anything to separate its investigation activities from its prosecution wing, and the fact that most complaints about attacks on police officers were being dealt with by the police prosecution only emphasized the need to make the latter more independent and objective.
The Public Defender’s Office, according to its new report, went a step further. Last April, it called on the deputy attorney general responsible for criminal cases to ensure, via legislative amendment, that police prosecutors be banned from dealing with cases of alleged attacks on or abuse of police officers, and that the state prosecution be authorized as the sole body in charge. It did not encourage public trust in the law enforcement system to have the police both investigating complaints by officers and deciding whether to prosecute suspects, the office told the deputy AG.
Poor police work in cases involving Ethiopian Israelis
The new report also describes five examples of poor police work in cases involving Ethiopian Israelis, where the Public Defender’s Office successfully persuaded the courts to dismiss police evidence or testimonies relating to alleged crimes.
In one case, an Ethiopian Israeli man, Solomon Radai, was accused of having murdered his female partner, Fouqueta Bugala, in 2003. The police, lacking evidence, resorted to using an agent to extract a confession. In November, the Jerusalem District Court acquitted Radai and slammed the way police had operated the agent, who posed as a hardened criminal, pushed Radai to carry out various crimes with him and goaded and pressured him through various means to confess. Under such circumstances, the court ruled, Radai might well have admitted under pressure to something he had not actually done.
In another case, the Jerusalem District Court blasted the police for taking an Israeli woman of Ethiopian origin to the offices of the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority, where they threatened that she would be deported unless she incriminated another Ethiopian Israeli suspect. As a result of this, the court dismissed all the witness statements in the case.
In a third case, a court convicted an Ethiopian Israeli youth of theft and trespassing after police said they had seen him on a security camera at the scene of the crime. On appeal, the Nazareth Juvenile Court cleared the minor, after consulting with an expert in identification methods, and stressed that great care must be taken when police try to identify suspects from a minority racial group, in this case, Ethiopian Israelis.
In a fourth case, the same Nazareth court cleared a group of Ethiopian Israeli minors of assaulting a police officer in a park, after discovering that the minors’ rights had been violated, including the right to a hearing. The court said the police had to behave fairly, as well as according to the law, and had to check that letters to the youngsters’ homes advising parents of the right to a hearing had been delivered and understood, given that many parents in the community do not have a solid grasp of Hebrew.
Finally, in the fifth case, the High Court cleared a young Ethiopian Israeli man, who had no criminal record, of a charge that he had wielded a knife. The man was detained by Haifa beach inspectors after they had been informed that a “person of Ethiopian origin” had committed an offense on the sands. In her ruling, Justice Daphne Barak-Erez wrote that the case created an uneasy feeling about the “unbearable ease” with which a person could be turned into a suspect. Judge Uzi Fogelman expressed fear that detentions might be based on ethnic tagging or racist assumptions.
On the positive side, the Public Defender’s Office report reveals that the attorney general ordered in January that changes be made to state prosecution regulations dealing with the criteria that Machash should use to determine whether a complaint against a police officer should be directed along a criminal or disciplinary track. Changes to these regulations are expected soon, the report says.
Police force needs to undergo ‘systematic change’
In February 2017, a Government Unit for Coordinating the Struggle Against Racism was set up in the Prime Minister’s Office. This followed recommendations of an Inter ministerial Committee for the Elimination of Racism against Israelis of Ethiopian Descent, commonly known as the Palmor Committee after its chairwoman, Ami Palmor. The Palmor Committee was created following widespread protests by Ethiopian Israelis in 2015 in the wake of a video of police beating up an Ethiopian Israeli soldier, Damas Pakada, which went viral.
In its 2018 annual report, published in May, the unit says that it has identified four areas in need of systematic change, one of which is the police, against whom 10 per cent of complaints received by the unit about racism were received. The report called on the police to integrate a syllabus about fighting racism into its training programs.
The unit listed complaints about racist behavior submitted to police during late 2016 and early 2017. Out of eight complaints, five were ruled to be not justified and one was not pursued for lack of basic details. In one case, a complainant charged that a police officer out of uniform refused to identify himself and used aggressive, racist language. The complainant taped part of the interaction, the case was found to be justified, and the officer was given a “training interview.”
In another case, an appeal was submitted against a Machash decision concerning a complaint that officers ordered an Ethiopian Israeli to take a breath test, refused to identify themselves, and detained him without lawful justification. The appeal was rejected.
One of the Palmor Committee’s recommendations — for an annual report to be made public detailing disciplinary measures taken against police for racism — has not yet been implemented.