I’m sure I’m not the only Israeli who cheered when former Jerusalem police chief Nisso Shaham was indicted last week. This is justice long overdue: The police should have ousted him eight years ago on grounds of brutality. And if it had, some of the incidents for which he now faces trial might never have happened.
Unfortunately, Shaham is anything but unique in this regard: For far too long, our law enforcement agencies have ignored police misconduct of every sort, from brutality to lying to gross negligence. The question is whether this case will finally make them realize that such leniency doesn’t pay and prompt a broad crackdown on all misconduct, or whether the “lesson” will be limited to a crackdown on the specific abuses behind last week’s indictment.
Shaham is charged with sexually assaulting and harassing eight policewomen. Some were his direct subordinates; all were very much his junior in both age and rank. In some cases, he allegedly exploited his power over important career moves, such as promotions or paid study, to obtain their sexual favors.
He is also charged with fraud and breach of trust for having given some of his sexual favorites jobs they were unqualified for, thereby degrading the force’s ability to do its work. In one case, he allegedly pressured a subordinate to accept a policewoman to Jerusalem’s Central Unit even though she failed the entrance exams; in another, he assigned a policewoman to the district’s special operations unit despite performance reviews saying she didn’t do her work and was unsuited to the job.
But Shaham originally made headlines back in 2005, as Negev District commander, when he was caught on camera ordering subordinates to viciously assault tens of thousands of demonstrators in Kfar Maimon who were peacefully protesting the upcoming disengagement from Gaza. “Beat them with truncheons, low down … Let them burn, shit on them,” he said.
In any self-respecting democracy, a senior police officer caught ordering an assault on peaceful protesters would be summarily dismissed. Police brutality is always unacceptable, but it’s especially unacceptable when used to suppress peaceful protest, a fundamental democratic right. But Shaham, far from being dismissed, was promoted: Two years later, he was named Jerusalem’s deputy police chief, in which capacity he allegedly committed some of the crimes he’s now on trial for. Then he became the capital’s chief of police. Only after the sexual harassment allegations surfaced last year was he finally forced to resign.
Yet Shaham is far from unique: Media reports of police misconduct appear with monotonous regularity, but few policemen ever face penalties for such behavior. Hence it’s hardly surprising that only 21% of Israelis say they trust police “to a large extent.” Consider just a few recent incidents:
• Earlier this month, a court dismissed charges against a man accused of assaulting a police officer. The man had claimed the officer actually assaulted him; the judge found it unconscionable that the authorities indicted him without ever investigating his own complaint of assault, or even questioning a taxi driver who witnessed the altercation.
Justifying brutality by falsely claiming their victims assaulted them is unfortunately a common police tactic. In one well-known 2005 case, for instance, a border policeman who shot a Palestinian demonstrator with a rubber bullet claimed he did so after being attacked, and three of his colleagues backed his story in court. But video footage of the demonstration revealed that he opened fire unprovoked.
• Last month, a taxi driver whose license was suspended for reckless driving won a retrial after his cellphone log (procured by the Public Defender’s Office) showed he had been in Rosh Ha’ayin when the alleged offense was committed in Holon. Shockingly, police hadn’t even bothered examining the cellphone log, nor had they questioned any of the 12 other taxi drivers whose license plates bore the partial string of numbers jotted down by a witness.
• Two months ago, video footage showed police repeatedly shocking Boaz Albert with a Taser as he lay on the floor begging them to stop. Albert wasn’t violently resisting arrest; when the cops arrived at his house, he ran inside and lay down on the floor. But instead of simply dragging him out, they shocked him repeatedly.
• The month before that, audiotapes of an interrogation revealed that cops had threatened a juvenile Palestinian witness into identifying someone in a photograph as the defendant, though the witness initially identified the person in the picture as someone else.
At a Knesset hearing earlier this month, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said that 88 policemen were dismissed last year for brutality. If true, that’s a welcome improvement; traditionally, police misconduct has resulted in no penalties whatsoever – as with Shaham’s behavior at Kfar Maimon.
But dismissing the occasional beat cop isn’t enough, because low-level policemen take their cues from their superiors’ behavior. Hence when they see someone like Shaham being rewarded with promotion after ordering a violent assault on peaceful demonstrators, they naturally conclude that this is how they are expected to behave. Only once the police and the Justice Ministry, which investigates police misconduct, stop tolerating abuses at the top will proper norms filter down to the lower ranks.
To facilitate this process, the Knesset should swiftly pass a bill by MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) that would require cops to wear miniature cameras on their uniforms. The benefits are obvious: Police are less likely to employ unjustified force if they know video footage will prove they did so, or to falsely accuse citizens of assault if they know the footage will disprove their claim, while citizens are less likely to file false complaints against policemen if they know the footage will disprove their accusations. Indeed, within a year after a similar program was introduced in California, policemen’s use of force dropped almost 60% and complaints against policemen fell by 88%.
Granted, this won’t solve the more complicated problem of gross negligence. But in the long and vital process of rebuilding Israelis’ trust in law enforcement, policemen who at least refrain from abusing the citizens they’re supposed to protect would be a good place to start.