As I made the turn from Menachem Begin Way onto Lincoln Street in the center of Tel Aviv, I saw a traffic cop waiting for me. She signaled to me to stop on the side of the road. I assumed it was simply a routine check, because she had been standing at the junction and waiting, not following me.
She asked me for my driver’s license and my insurance, looked at my papers, and exchanged a few words with the person on the other end of the walkie-talkie on her shoulder. I sat tensely, trying to understand what was going on.
“You know you went through a red light, don’t you?!” said the policewoman aggressively. “What?!” I responded. “If I’d seen a red light I wouldn’t have gone through the intersection. Was I photographed going through a red light?”
“No, you weren’t photographed. There’s no need for that, I saw it with my own eyes. My testimony is good enough! What color was the light when you went through the intersection?” she asked, still aggressive. It was an impossible question to answer. If I said it was green, that would be tantamount to calling her a liar, but if I said it was red, that would be tantamount to admitting to a traffic offence. I answered with the simple truth: “I really don’t remember. I came from the Galilee, I’ve been on the road for two hours already, and I don’t remember the colors of all the traffic lights I saw this morning… “
“Get out and wait here,” she ordered. I got out and followed her. She went over to a police motorbike that was parked next to the intersection and started to fill out a ticket.
I watched the busy junction as I waited. This is a complicated, multi-lane intersection. A driver coming from the south and turning right has a problem: the traffic light for the right turn is straight ahead, but the lane turns sharply to the right. This means the driver has to look to the right so as not to crash into the vehicle ahead, and at the same time look to the left to see when the traffic light changes to red.
Then I looked at the parked police motorbike and the penny dropped. She had not been simply going about police business keeping the Israeli public safe, during the course of which she happened to notice someone going through a red light – she was permanently stationed there, and her task was to trap the unsuspecting who missed the red light… precisely because the traffic cops knew it was a problematic junction!
I was angry. I went to the traffic cop who was intently writing out the ticket. “I was the last one in the line who turned right at the junction, right?”
“Yes, you crossed the last two meters of the junction on a red light,” she said, confirming my suspicions.
“Look at the junction,” I said. “It’s dangerous! Why are you waiting after the junction to catch people who get confused, instead of before the junction to warn drivers that it’s a dangerous turn? Couldn’t they fix the junction? Or put up warning signs? Who is it our police are protecting??”
Not long ago, my friend “Yoram” (a pseudonym) came back from a family visit to the States. Yoram is a veteran officer in the police force. When I asked him about his visit he said with emotion, “Sagi, I came back from America in total shock at the status of the police in America. Here the police are considered “the enemy” – part of the establishment, someone to be wary of. But in the US, the police are considered friends, protectors, respected figures who help and protect the public. “
Returning to our police officer in the center of Tel Aviv – when I understood what was going on and the implications, I became very angry. But I also realized that I could not blame the young policewoman in the blue uniform, standing in the junction and sweating in a blazing Tel Aviv summer. Her commanders in the Traffic Police, the ones who ordered her to stand at that junction and trap drivers as a way to levy heavy fines, they are the ones who are to blame.
The traffic cop gave me a fine of 1,000 shekels (about $250). When she had filled out the ticket she asked me if I had anything to add. “Yes,” I said, “I want to add that I expect the police to protect the Israeli public. I intend to go to trial so the truth about this situation will come out.” I also got her permission to photograph her.
After this incident I went back to Yoram and told him all about it. “Sagi, you’re right. As an officer in the police, it angers me too. It’s true that once upon a time the traffic police would go for the quick and easy way to fill their quota of tickets. But nowadays the new Chief of Police has set a new policy. ‘Go for the big things,’ he told us. ‘Take care of the major safety hazards, the things that endanger the public. Don’t worry about petty violations or genuine mistakes.’ What you are describing is completely against the orders of the Chief of Police!”
Three questions to consider:
- What are the main functions of the Traffic Police in Israel? Assuming that protecting the public is (at the very least) one of them, how does waiting at a known problematic intersection and handing out heavy fines to drivers who fall victim to the problems serve that function?
- What is the significance of a 1,000 shekel fine to the average Israeli who earns a monthly salary of about 7,000 shekels and struggles to make ends meet? Can the average Israeli deal with the police in such cases, or will they simply have to take their anger at such incidents and file it under “stuff the establishment does to screw me, the little guy”?
- How can we use the momentum generated by the social justice protests, in which the “ordinary citizens” discovered their power, to deal with incidents of this kind?
And I have a personal request to those who read this: Please publicize this story! Send it to your friends. Share it on your Facebook pages. Publicize your own stories. Shine a spotlight on cases where the establishment serves itself instead of the public.
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor (4th Dan) of the Hoshaya Karate Club. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His first book, “Benartzi” (“Son of My Land”), was published recently by Achiasaf Publishing. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.