From Rodney King to Umm al-Fahm: Is the Israel Police on the way to reform?

The Los Angeles Police Department reinvented itself in the shadow of the deadly 1992 race riots following the beating by officers of a black motorist. Recently, fourteen Israeli police station commanders, the majority from mixed Jewish-Arab cities and regions throughout the country, discovered that the lessons of Los Angeles can help them redefine their own approach to Israel’s Arab citizens.

Lessons from the LA County Sheriff’s Dept (photo: supplied)
Lessons from the LA County Sheriff’s Dept (photo: supplied)

The commanders, headed by Israel Police Deputy Commissioner Yisrael Yitzhak, participated in a study mission to Los Angeles, visiting with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which together serve a population of 20 million citizens. The hosts presented work methods and models for collaboration with minority populations based on dialogue, identification of shared interests, and mutual confidence building.

As the Israeli commanders studied the work up-close at headquarters and grassroots levels and accompanied patrols in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and as they participated in officer workshops and visited training facilities, they were left with no doubts: from the top of the pyramid to the newest recruit at the Police Academy, the message is consistent, clear and resolute – public trust in the police is not a luxury, but a basic condition for effective policing.

What can Israel learn from L.A.? (photo: supplied)
What can Israel learn from L.A.? (photo: supplied)

The core assumptions of community-based policing drive police procedures, operational approaches, allocation of resources, recruitment policies and communication between the police and the public. This approach focuses squarely on minority communities that, in the not-distant past, saw the police as a racist and violent arm of a discriminatory system. In the eyes of these minority communities, the function of the police was to protect the rich white public of Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. The police meanwhile insisted that it was engaged in an uncompromising war on crime, without regard to issues of identity and class.

In 1992, a passerby filmed the arrest of Rodney King, a young African-American man who was cruelly and unjustifiably beaten by a group of police officers. In the pre-mobile phone era, many people accepted that the footage was merely the tip of the iceberg of police racism. But this was only the beginning. The offending police officers were subsequently acquitted by a jury that did not include a single black citizen, sparking unprecedented riots that literally set the city ablaze. Thousands of buildings were torched, mass looting took place, passersby were ambushed and gun battles raged. The final tally included 53 civilians killed – many of them by the police and the national guard – more than 2,000 injuries, and massive property damage.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots, which became a catalyst for reexamining race relations and law enforcement, have their Israeli parallel in the deadly events of October 2000. These clashes, mostly between Arab Israeli citizens and the Israel Police, killed 12 Arab citizens, a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian from Gaza.

While there are significant differences, in both cases there was a history of “under-policing,” reflected in police absence from the streets and a failure to respond to crime within minority communities, combined with “over-policing” in terms of the excessive use of force and humiliating police practices like stop-and-search on the basis of appearance and ethnic identity (“Ethnic Profiling”). Another similarity was a perception on the part of the police that the minority poses a threat to the public and social order, and a minority perception that the police are the grassroots embodiment of a discriminatory and oppressive establishment. In both cases, the net result was mutual mistrust and enmity, with inevitable consequences.

Both in Los Angeles and in Israel, these violent events encouraged change in the relationship between the police and the minority communities. In the American case, a court order required the LAPD to address the subject of racism head on, including the replacement of most of the command echelon. Chief Bill Bratton and his successor Chief Charlie Beck understood that if they redefined the duty of the police officer as being to provide security and quality of life, rather than undertaking stop and search operations, both sides would have a common interest in cooperation, enhancing mutual trust and reducing crime. In their effort to reform the force, both police leaders have partnered with civil society organizations that served as a bridge to the community.

A similar trend, although slower in developing, can also be observed in Israel. Even before the publication of the report of the “Orr Commission” in 2004 on the events of October 2000, the police slowly began to seek ways to engage in dialogue with the Arab community. The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-governmental organization that has undertaken the task of building relations of trust between the two sides, became involved in a series of training activities within various levels of the police, focused on policing in a multicultural society.

At the same time, The Abraham Fund has also engaged in community empowerment activities within Arab society in order to help the community step up its demands for appropriate and fair policing services, as an integral part of the services the state must provide for all its citizens. The growing crime wave in Arab communities is alarming and dangerous, but also creates a window of opportunity to change the relationship between the police and the Arab public in Israel. The police have shown they are ready and willing to cooperate with the Arab leadership and declared their commitment to change. And the Arab public recognizes that there is no substitute for effective police services and is more inclined to trust the police.

Four Israeli chief commissioners have served since the police began to take remedial action to change the perception of policing toward the Arab minority. The police remain committed to change, although on a scale that still falls far short of comprehensive reform. And yet, as Chief Commissioner Yohanan Danino emphasizes time and time again to police personnel that community-based policing is Israel’s new policing philosophy, it seems that this approach is, at least partially, filtering down throughout the system.

About the Author
Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu is the Co-Executive Director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-governmental organization that works to advance coexistence, equality and cooperation between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens