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Israeli Supreme Court to Rule on Police Profiling Case

Israeli Supreme Court to Rule on Police Profiling Case

Petitioners say officers discriminate when demanding identification

A great deal rides on the Israeli Supreme Court’s verdict on the latest racial profiling case. At stake is the unlimited authority of the police to ask citizens for their Interior Ministry-issued identity card.

Law enforcement agencies say that they have legal grounds for their current practice, able to stop anyone at any time for any reason and ask for identity cards, under the 1982 law mandating that everyone 16 years old and above carry identification at all times.

The Association of Ethiopian Jews (AEJ), along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and other human rights and legal groups, disagrees. They also say police policy as it stands is discriminatory, with Ethiopian Israelis and other minorities groups being unfairly targeted. The authorities deny the allegation.

The case was first argued in February, with the second hearing held last week. After the original hearing, the burden of proof shifted from AEJ and its partners to the police.

Law enforcement agencies also say that their power to ask anyone for ID, without reasonable suspicion, i.e. an objective and concrete reason, is needed to carry out their inspection role to protect the public.

Micky Rosenfeld, spokesperson for the Israel Police, told The Media Line: “Police carry out activities in all the different communities in order to prevent and respond to incidents that take place on criminal related issues. Every officer must respond according to the rules, guidelines, regulations and authority that he has been given to implement the laws, … all of [which] is guided and backed up by the legal department.

“Policemen and policewomen study the rules and implement them throughout their activities with the general public and at the time when dealing with incidents,” Rosenfeld said.

The law is worded in a way that obligates citizens to show their identity cards when the police have the power to do so. But the power should be exterior to this law. This is the question the Supreme Court will have to decide

Anne Suciu, the ACRI attorney who wrote the Supreme Court petition, rejects the argument that the police play an inspection role as part of their usual responsibilities.

“There are very, very few laws that allow police to frisk or ask for ID without suspicion,” Suciu told The Media Line, citing as an example laws that permit the police to check whether people are complying with quarantine, without an underlying reason to suspect that an offense has been committed.

AEJ, ACRI and their team say that the 1982 law does not grant the police limitless authority to check ID, based on the purpose and wording of the law and on subsequent laws passed in 1992 and 1996.

Suciu said the original law was not intended to expand police powers, as police were not included in the Knesset discussions before passage.

“The law is worded in a way that obligates citizens to show their identity cards when the police have the power to do so. But the power should be exterior to this law,” she told The Media Line. “This is the question the Supreme Court will have to decide.

“There are laws that allow police to demand an ID card, but the law should be very clear and allow this infringement of civil rights,” Suciu added, citing as examples laws that grant police officers or private security guards authority to ask for the government-issued ID card at any mall or any closed space and search the bearers’ belongings.

“The 1982 law … is not a clear law that allows the police to violate your rights,” she said.

Suciu also argues that the police claim that the 1982 law gives them authority to ask for an ID card without objective suspicions contradicts laws the Knesset passed in the 1990s.

In 1996, the powers of the police, which hitherto had been divided among a number of laws, were compiled in one general law that includes giving the police the power to detain and arrest, but with reasonable suspicion.

This, combined with the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (1992) prohibiting the curtailment of one’s liberty unless specified in law, forms the basis of the petitioners’ additional argument.

However, there are instances when public safety concerns mean police might need to stop someone without reasonable suspicion.

At last week’s hearing, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut brought up the issue of pedophiles and how, if police power is curtailed, law enforcement might be unable to protect children. She said that if a person around children looks suspicious without objective proof, the police would then be unable to ask for identification so they could check his or her criminal record.

Suciu argues that children can still be protected if the police spend more time watching the person to find reasonable suspicion or increase their presence in areas that might be problematic. She also contends children’s safety can be ensured by amending the law regarding pedophilia or by the police seeking additional authority from the Knesset in places where there are many children.

Over the years, she contends, police power has expanded to address “specific phenomena,” for example the power to frisk people at clubs.

The ultimate goal of the petition is to end the police’s current policy, Suciu said.

“We demand that the Supreme Court deny the police the ability to continue this practice of asking people to identify themselves without reasonable suspicion,” she said.

The AEJ and its partners also argue that minority groups are targeted by unfettered police power to stop people and ask for ID.

“When the police are free from objective criteria, they, like any other person, will use their own stereotypes, … which is very clearly happening,” Suciu said.

“This law is affecting mostly marginalized groups and people of color, and that why we decided we need to change that,” Efrat Yerday, AEJ chairperson and recent recipient of the New Israel Fund’s “Guardian of Democracy” Gallanter Prize, told The Media Line. “They can decide just by looking at a person whether or not she is suspicious.”

Association of Ethiopian Jews Chairperson Efrat Yerday. (Courtesy AEJ)

I have no doubt that the only reason I am required to identify myself is because of my skin color. … Sometimes I have a feeling that there is some kind of command from the top that every time police officers see Ethiopian Israelis, they absolutely must stop us

Z.T., a 29-year-old Ethiopian Israeli, whose testimony was included in the petition, shared an incident that took place in August 2017, when he was sitting with a friend in front of his apartment building:

“A police car passed by and stopped, and an officer got out and asked us: ‘What are you doing here?’ And I answered that I live here. … I did not have my ID card on me because I was at the entrance of the building. I suggested he take my ID number, which I knew by heart, so he could check. Another policeman got out of the car and joined an argument that developed between us. They repeatedly asked us why were walking around without an ID. …

“I have no doubt that the only reason I am required to identify myself is because of my skin color. … Sometimes I have a feeling that there is some kind of command from the top that every time police officers see Ethiopian Israelis, they absolutely must stop us,” he said.

“Every time [I am stopped], I feel very uncomfortable. It is very humiliating and embarrassing for me. … What hurts me the most is the kids. I’m used to it and feel like I can handle it as long as there is no violence, but a young boy of 13 or 15, what can he do!?” Z.T. said.

There are no exact data on who is stopped and whether he or she belongs to a disenfranchised group.

The 1996 law allows police to hold someone for up to 20 minutes without any official record of doing so. Yerday wants these stops to be documented. While it appears to be a short period of time, she said that the experience has long-lasting implications.

“When you live in a country where you feel all the time that you are a threat…, the consequence is endless trauma. And it’s more than that. … It’s a feeling like you’re not a part of society.”

She cites as an example the current protests against the government, decrying alleged corruption and the ailing economy.

“Many in the public support them [the anti-government protesters]; they feel that these are ‘our children’ who want [Israel to be] a good place for everyone. But when Ethiopians protest [against police brutality], we are called ‘barbaric,’ ‘vandals’ and ‘violent,’” Yerday said.

“In the relationship between the police and citizens, it’s very clear who ‘the citizen’ is, who is the public that are we taking care of, and who is a ‘threat’ in this relationship and in other areas [of life] as well,” she said.

Our color is our crime

Terry Tessema-Cohen, a mother, midwife and activist, said police profiling is just a part of endemic racism in Israel, which needs to be addressed.

Mother, midwife, and activist Terry Tessema-Cohen. (Courtesy Terry Tessema-Cohen)

“When I was nine years old, I came with my sister to Israel, without our parents. The Israeli government placed us in a boarding school and the kids would tell me to ‘go back to Ethiopia’ and not to touch them because my color would rub off on them,” she told The Media Line. “I didn’t understand what they meant or what their problem was. In Ethiopia, if you are bad, or sick, or simply don’t respect people, you cannot go to Jerusalem.”

Tessema-Cohen relived this experience three years ago at the Tel Aviv hospital where she works.

“Before I even said my name, the patient’s mother told me: ‘You can’t touch my daughter. You’re black,” she said.

“The discrimination is systematic. Magen David Adom routinely threw out our blood donations without telling us [a story broken by the Maariv newspaper in 1996]. The Health Ministry gave Depo Provera, a contraceptive, to our mothers [through pressure or without explanation, which the Israeli public learned about in 2012]. “Why? They don’t want too many black kids here,” Tessema-Cohen said.

“Our color is our crime,” she said.

In the meantime, Suciu is cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the groups’ petition.

“I think the judges understood clearly that the police cannot continue their current ID procedures, but I am afraid … that taking away power the police have used for many years will be difficult for the court,” she said.

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