A ‘field of dreams’ that wont heal police troubles 

A rare cause for celebration gripped the Israel Police last Monday, as they dedicated a massive, 2.9 billion shekel training facility outside Beit Shemesh. Coming in the midst of an era of scandal, the dedication of the gleaming, sprawling facility was marked as nothing less than a triumph for the battered organization.

According to police figures, the academy sprawls over some 64,000 square meters on a more than 230 dunam plot, and will incorporate the activities of some 19 police training facilities nationwide. The facility has mock ups of a nightclub, a courthouse and a mall, for anti-terror units and other cops to train for hostage situations,  terror attacks, or to shoot their own action movie or reality show if the desire strikes. The academy will also have room to house well over a thousand overnight guests and feed more than 3,000 people, who can also kick back at the 2,000 seat amphitheater after emptying a few clips at one of the 9 shooting ranges.

Typing or reading that paragraph one can’t help but feel this is a grandiose, possibly even excessive undertaking.

The project will eventually cost NIS 2.9 billion, which is being funded through a public-private partnership between the state and the company that won the tender – Policity group. In a first for Israel, a private corporation will manage a state facility of this sort and be responsible for bringing in private contractors to train police.

In the week before the official opening ceremony, the Israel Police sent out a statement to the press saying that the “vision of the school is for it to create a culture of excellence and professionalism for the Israel Police”, in that the superior facilities and higher standard of training will help produce a more professional police force.

It seems a sort of “Field of Dreams” style logic – “if you build it, excellence and professionalism will come”.

The Israel Police have long been also-rans, far down the prestige ladder from the Army, Mossad, and Shin Bet, perched somewhere above the Prison Service and more or less on par with the Border Patrol. They aren’t pampered, they aren’t adored, and they typically don’t get the perks and the blank checks the elite security services and the army often do. It makes sense that they would want such a flagship institution and that they would relish being the recipients of such a budgetary windfall. Still, one wonders whether or not this is the way to repair what ails the police.

The facility, no matter how state of the art, will not change public perception that the police are an organization rife with scandal, as one senior commander after another resigned or was fired in a series of sex scandals over the past couple of years. It’s also unclear how the facility could build bridges with the Arab community, after the police use of deadly force this past year in communities such as Kfar Kana and Rahat has sparked riots that could have easily spun far out of control. Top notch facilities probably also won’t erase the still lingering public criticism of police that came following the “100 dispatch” scandal last year, when police dispatch operators failed to heed a call placed by one of the three kidnapped Israeli teens.

Seeing as these problems aren’t ones caused by deficient technology or poor training facilities, one is left with the feeling that the NIS 2.9 billion could have potentially been better spent on police salary increases or on increasing manpower in crime-ridden communities.

The police are very concerned about their public perception, a fact that is obvious in what top commanders say behind closed doors to the press. They realize that changing perceptions will take years, in particular repairing damage caused by the recent spate of sex scandals and tension with the Arab community which has remained since the deadly events of October 2000.

It’s hard to see how the new academy will solve these problems.

On Saturday, National Police Chief Yochanan Danino spoke about a series of issues facing police, including the sprawling 242 corruption case (better known as the “Yisrael Beitenu case”) as well as what he described as police success restoring quiet to Jerusalem. In the first case you have one of the largest public corruption cases ever in Israel, which police launched despite any possible political pressure. That case went public just a couple months before the investigation against the Musli family broke, one of the largest police organized crime cases in some time, which could possibly deal a serious blow to Israel’s richest crime family. In the second case, a major police deployment in the capitol helped quell violence that spread fear throughout the city and beyond, as so-called “lone wolf attacks” were happening with terrifying frequency. Danino and others in the police were vocal in their criticism of politicians they said were enflaming the situation, despite the criticism they withstood for doing so.

These cases are good examples of how police can restore public faith – through serious, long-term and important investigations and through deployment in the line of fire to protect civilians from deadly violence. In neither case is it clears how if at all a gleaming, hi-tech facility like the new academy could have helped the situation.

With the new police academy now open, the police will have less luck complaining about a lack of resources or that they’ve been neglected by the state. Their only option now is to continue to focus on the long road ahead.

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