Casting nets and catching little fish

Forget about the Iranian threat, the rising cost of living or the new attack tunnels being built by Hamas on the Gaza border. The Israel Police are tackling head-on a real menace to our peace and security – high-school kids smoking weed.

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At least that was the impression I got late last month, when police announced yet another undercover drug operation that netted dozens of arrests and who knows how many criminal cases.

The story was set in Tel Aviv, where police on February 25 announced that they had arrested and detained for questioning dozens of teenagers suspected of being part of a “sophisticated drug-dealing network.”

All but one of the teenagers were aged 16 and 17, and of the 32 brought in by police, 19 were arrested for using the drugs only, not for anything having to do with drug dealing.

The drugs in question were marijuana and hashish, and the sums were at most in the hundreds of shekels, according to police. And though it was a “highly sophisticated network,” police said the kids used the code words “green” and “brown” to describe marijuana and hashish, perhaps indicating they were not the most cunning of criminal masterminds, nor that police needed the Military Intelligence Directorate’s code-breakers to crack this cipher.

The day the case broke it got pretty heavy play in the national media, and was part of the news cycle for about 24 hours. Looking back, a few questions come to mind, just like after every one of these cases.

Why is this a national story? Why is the arrest of a group of teenagers for smoking pot and small-time dealing between their friends a story that warrants discussion on Israeli radio and its top news channels? By this standard, half of the students I knew in high school in the US would have been famous or at least would have known people who were.

Furthermore, in the police press release it highlighted the fact that one of the teens admitted to smoking pot with his mom, an allegation she herself confirmed to investigators. Why this is an issue for police and not for child protection services and their like is unclear, nor why it was necessary to report that aspect of the case that is subject to confidentiality issues being that it involves minors.

More importantly though, what happens after the case breaks? The story makes the rounds one day, but after the dust settles, what’s the net result? How many of these arrests led to indictments and how many were thrown out of court? Regardless of how many of the cases result in indictments, one thing certain is that all of these teens have juvenile cases opened in their names and a record with law enforcement, all in the same year that they should be having their initial draft interviews with the IDF. The fact that such arrests can potentially jeopardize a youngster’s future is of seemingly no concern to police or at all part of the media coverage.

It’s very likely that the motivation for these press releases is to raise public awareness among parents about what is happening with Israeli youngsters, to let them know that even at the best schools and the nicest neighborhoods, if parents don’t pay attention, their children can get into trouble. Nonetheless, these press releases typically seem alarmist and out of proportion.

Though in this case it was teenagers, rarely a week passes without a new police undercover drug sweep reported by the Police Spokesman’s Office. With some exceptions the story follows a familiar script – a cop from outside the district is brought in (if it’s in Tel Aviv or the Center, the cop is usually brought from the North or the South), he’s sent undercover posing as a drug user or smalltime dealer, and lives in the city making street-level buys. After a couple months, the investigation “goes public” as police swoop out in force and arrest dozens of dealers. Few, if any, are ever above the street level or busted with more than a small amount of drugs.

Another type of undercover operation is potentially more problematic. These cases don’t involve a cop from out of town sent in undercover, they involve everyday civilians recruited to be “police agents,” who then build cases on suspects who are typically arrested down the road. The suspects are often friends, neighbors and other associates the person has easy access to.

One of these cases broke last September, when a 26-year-old single mother and hair stylist from Petah Tikva – nicknamed “Nikita” by her handlers – was recruited to build drug cases on dozens of local dealers and users. Nearly a year later the case netted 29 arrests of people allegedly involved in the drug trade, though virtually all of them were friends or acquaintances she knew from the hair salon, people who hooked her up with a small buy and then were hauled in as dealers. While it’s not legal to buy drugs for your friends, and even if these police tactics don’t constitute entrapment, at least this still seems a far cry from being Donnie Brasco with a curling iron.

These undercover cases and the story of the dozens of teens brought in by cops paint a picture of a police force looking to get headlines, while maybe not all that sensitive to the effect legal issues can have on your average citizen. By no means should people get a free pass to break the law, but when the case involves minors or everyday people without criminal records who were selling or possessing the most negligible amounts of contraband, it would be wise to exercise restraint.

These cases came to mind on Monday, when details were cleared for publication of how police stopped a mob hit in Ashdod, the second underworld killing they’ve prevented in the city in the past few months. The story has everything – bad guys with bombs, cops shooting and killing a suspect (rightfully?) who rammed their cars and a gang war between two mobsters – Shalom Domrani and Benny Shlomo – who are legitimate celebrities in Israel and household names in a lot of bad households in the country. Police still have a lot of room for improvement in its fight against organized crime, but it has victories to be proud of.

Perhaps the police could learn from fishermen from time immemorial that you throw the small fish back, and only boast when the big ones are caught.

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