BiographyBook ReviewsJoin Mailing ListScheduled AppearancesArticlesFeedback


Petty Criminals 1: Jerusalem Cops 0
Israeli Police Patrol Car
by Judy Lash Balint
April 22, 2005

A number of years ago, I was mugged in New York when a scrawny middle-aged woman tried to snatch the purse off my shoulder as I was paying for an item at a bodega in the Hell's Kitchen section of the city. My natural instincts kicked in and without actually being cognizant of what I was doing, I fought her off and yelled "You must be joking!" as we scuffled at the curbside. While I got in a few good blows, she did too and I did not emerge exactly unscathed. Still, lucky for me, a couple of plain clothes cops were staking out an apartment across the street and came running as soon as they heard the commotion. She was cuffed and booked, and the next day I testified before a New York Grand Jury and Jane Doe attacker, with many previous convictions, spent the next year in prison.

I wish I could tell you that our Jerusalem police achieve similar results, but a few days ago, I took part in police pursuit of a petty criminal that didn't quite work out that way.

As I get out of my car in front of my apartment building on a relatively quiet residential street, I notice a young guy (let's call him Stupid Thief) talking on a cellphone as he crosses the street toward me. Another woman is getting into her car a few spaces down, and he hovers a little too closely around her car. As she drives off, he continues to talk into his phone and saunters over to me. I pull a few things out of the trunk, slam it shut, lock the car and have the feeling something isn't quite right. Instead of leading him into my building, I decide to walk down a few yards and cross the street. As I stand at the curb holding some bags in my left hand, with my purse hanging over that same shoulder the NY mugger had tried to pry it from, I feel someone tug at the bag. I tug back, hold on to the bag, whirl around and yell into Stupid Thief's face in English, "Piss off!" Instead of running off, he just walks back across the street!

I whip out my cellphone and call the police. Stupid Thief sees me do this, takes off behind a building across the street where I see him remove his rather easily identifiable red and white striped shirt, and then he peers around the corner of the building. The cops keep me on the line as I describe his movements, and the idiot thief comes back over to me and stands there in his undershirt saying, "You're crazy." Yes, as a matter of fact, I am pretty crazy by now, and sorely tempted to belt him one with my bag. But I do get a good look at him.

Realizing that Jerusalem's finest are about to be on his tail, Stupid Thief jumps into a car and drives off up the street. I relay his license number to the cops and hang up. Five minutes later, my phone rings and a police officer asks if I would be willing to make a statement and "help the officers." Thinking back to my moment of glory back in New York, I immediately agree, and two young officers in blue are at my door within 10 minutes. So far so good.

What happens over the next hour and a half might have made a good "bloopers" segment. At the outset, Sagiv and Ilanit are dutifully serious. They walk me back down through the back of the building where Stupid Thief had run to hide and may have dropped some clue. Nothing. "OK--into the patrol car," orders Ilanit, clearly in charge here. With model-like good looks, the slender pony-tailed officer slides deftly into the driver's seat. "Now, we're going to find this guy, because YOU'LL be on the look out for him or his car, right?" she says, as she punches a few relevant details into the car's state-of-the-art computer.

One block away, at the intersection with the main street, she swivels around to ask me what direction we should take--as if I would know which way Stupid Thief might have fled. I point to the busier part of the street, and as we cruise down the road, Ilanit coolly lights up a cigarette and informs me that if we get a hot tip about Stupid Thief's whereabouts, we'll be taking off like a bullet...uh, huh, right.

Less than five minutes into our operation, a bulletin from central command comes over the radio that a striped shirt character had attempted a break-in at an apartment on the street we were on. But we don't get there so fast because on the way we passed a volunteer cop directing traffic at a busy intersection. Screeching to a halt in the middle of the two lane street, Ilanit calls the older guy over. With due seriousness she yells out to ask if he's seen anyone with a pink/white striped shirt running anywhere recently? "If you see someone like that, call in," she barks, as if such a thought would never occur to him.

So, off to crime scene #2. The apartment building is right next door to a supermarket full of pre-Pesach shoppers. We park on the sidewalk and I find myself waving through the police car window to a few incredulous neighbors. Maybe I'd been pulled in for interrogation for right-wing incitement, they probably think.

I mention to Sagiv that perhaps our perp has run off into the little park area above and behind the supermarket, rather than off down the main street, but he doesn't take my suggestion as a reason to get out of the car. We just sit there while Ilanit pulls out her paperwork, turns around in her seat and proceeds to take down my witness statement. Of course, she instructs me to continue to scan the street for Stupid Thief.

By this time, we're on nickname terms, already. "OK, Judele--let's go on," she says endearingly after another radio interruption. (None of the NY cops ever called me "Judele," believe me)

Sagiv, meantime, has gone off to wander around the crime scene. After a few minutes he returns with a burly, frightened-looking Arab in tow. No handcuffs in sight, and Sagiv isn't even holding his arm. The man, carrying a big bright red carrier bag, is flung into the back seat next to me. Like any Israeli, my first thought is, "suspicious package,"--call the cops.

Turns out that Mahmoud is an illegal worker. While Ilanit nonchalantly continues to scribble down my scintillating reconstruction of the attempted purse snatch, Sagiv simultaneously asks Mahmoud a series of questions about who hired him, what his wages were supposed to be, where he had been picked up from etc.

Another radio bulletin: Car break-in on Hapalmach--the street where we're parked. Papers thrown under the seat, Ilanit takes off. Not two seconds later, another call that a suspicious man is cruising around on the street below. "Take care of that first," orders the authorative voice on the intercom. Ilanit curses, but heads off to investigate. Right away we see the guy who has caused the suspicion. A young man with black kippa and tzitzit dangling is holding a clipboard in front of an apartment building. He's with the phone company, taking a survey. A quick look at his I.D card, call into the command, and we're back on the trail of Stupid Thief.

The car break-in victim describes "her" thief, and sure enough, it's Stupid Thief, who's put his striped shirt back on. He swiped her purse from the open car door as she was getting in the car and ran off up the busy street. She too got a good look at him and gives her statement to Ilanit.

It's now been almost an hour since my original contact with Thief and we're still just two blocks away from my place. The trail has obviously cooled and I have other things to do...

Ilanit and Sagiv drive me home, thank me for my help and drive off with Mahmoud still in the back seat.

Three days later, I get an early morning call from a detective. They have arrested a suspect and would like to "invite" me in for an identity parade a few hours later. Finally, a New York experience! Not quite--First of all, Jerusalem's central prison is a single-storied 19th century building in the center of town, surrounded by barbed wire and known to all as The Russian Compound, right across from the Russian Orthodox Church. The detective and the lawyer for the suspect came to escort the woman who'd seen Stupid Thief break into the car and me through the prison to the identification. We walk through a maze of low-ceilinged corridors lined with cells, past the exercise yard where a few dozen prisoners are walking listlessly up and down, and into a holding area. Here the detective explains the procedure. Separately, each of us will take a look at the eight prisoners lined up in the courtyard and point if we see "our" suspect.

No one-way glass, no protective door, in fact nothing stands between me and the eight shifty-looking young men lined up, apart from a few feet of cobblestone floor and one armed cop. I carefully scan the faces from left to right and back again. There's only one that even vaguely resembles Stupid Thief. As I study his face he averts his eyes and looks at the ground. I keep on staring at him until I'm pretty sure it's Stupid Thief. I point him out, sign the paper and walk back into the corridor.

Our detective looks dejected. Both of us women singled out the same guy, but he's been in jail for two weeks already, so he couldn't be our man.

Of course Jerusalem's cops have bigger fish to fry than pursuit of a petty criminal--the amount of firearms on the shoulders of uniformed and plainclothes officers coming and going into the Russian Compound is truly staggering.

Still, it would have been nice to have the Israeli version of another Grand Jury conviction under my belt.
Chag Kasher V'sameach from Jerusalem.