The call went out as a Code 100, a sex crime: A man was masturbating in a gray Hyundai near some children on a street in Borough Park.
Responding to the radio alert, several members of the Brooklyn South Safety Patrol, a local Hasidic watch group, hopped into their vehicles and headed toward the scene. Arriving in their uniforms and skullcaps, they surrounded the Hyundai, but the driver tried to flee. When they chased him down and tackled him, the man pulled a gun. Four of the patrolmen — known as shomrim for the Hebrew for “guards” — were injured in the melee. In the days that followed, they were hailed as heroes by a parade of politicians.
That was in September 2010. But within three years, as the case of the gunman, David Flores, made its way to court, a very different narrative emerged.
When Mr. Flores went on trial, his lawyer argued that he had not exposed himself, but instead had been pre-emptively attacked and fired his gun only in self-defense. An audio recording entered into evidence featured a 911 call from a witness reporting that the shomrim repeatedly kicked Mr. Flores after dragging him from his car.
When the jury reached a verdict, it acquitted the defendant of assault, attempted murder and the underlying lewdness allegation; he was convicted only of a gun-possession charge. As the jurors left the courtroom, some of them were so upset they stopped to hug the defendant’s mother. “The shomrim can’t decide if they’re going to be judge, jury and executioner in the middle of the street,” one of the jurors told The Daily News.
The Flores case was neither the first time, nor the last, that contradictory stories have been told about the shomrim, who, since the 1970s, have served as a sort of auxiliary police force for the ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Borough Park, Crown Heights, Flatbush and Williamsburg.
The independent, nonprofit groups tend to see themselves as 21st-century security outfits charged with protecting an insular population whose culture is rooted in preindustrial Europe. They use modern tools, like Twitter feeds and two-way radios, to chase down burglars, guard against vandals, find missing Alzheimer’s patients and control crowds at Torah processions and other large events.
Given the communities they serve, the shomrim also act as intermediaries for the secular authorities, negotiating language barriers and complex social mores for a segment of the citizenry given to speaking Yiddish. And yet in their desire to be, as they like to say, the “eyes and ears” of the police, they have occasionally found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Last month, two men linked to the shomrim in Williamsburg admitted taking part in the assault of a black man in their neighborhood. And in April, as part of a federal investigation, a former member of the Borough Park shomrim was arrested on charges of trying to secure handgun permits by offering bribes to the police.
That investigation led last week to the arrest of Norman Seabrook, the powerful head of the New York City correction officers’ union, who had dealings with an Upper West Side real-estate developer with ties to the New York Police Department and to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Several police officials who have come under scrutiny in the investigation had at one time or another held high-ranking posts in the 66th Police Precinct, which covers Borough Park and has in the past come under pressure from the Orthodox community.
In 1978, a mob angry over the murder of an elderly Hasidic man stormed the station house demanding better protection. Thirty years later, a similar crowd destroyed two police cars after a Jewish caterer was arrested during a traffic stop.
Ties to the Police
The recent spate of disciplinary actions against police commanders with ties to the precinct or to the patrol command that covers southern Brooklyn has focused new attention on the shomrim’s connections with the police, such as official training sessions and informal meals of cholent, a traditional barley stew.
Amid the attention, shomrim officials rarely speak to the news media these days, but Jacob Daskal, president of the Brooklyn South Safety Patrol, agreed to discuss the criticism of the groups. He dismissed the recent episodes as the work of a few “bad apples” who should not tarnish the dozens of upstanding volunteers who regularly break away from jobs or family dinners to assist in, say, the arrest of a man caught stealing from a charity box.
“It’s a very sad reality in our community that you have many people dedicated to helping and a small minority of critics on the sidelines questioning our motives,” Mr. Daskal said. “It’s always the good ones who get criticized.”
Mr. Daskal and other shomrim leaders said similar things when Mr. Flores was acquitted; and a few years earlier, when a member of a Crown Heights shomrim group fled to Israel to escape charges of beating a black man with a nightstick; and a decade before that, when two more shomrim from Crown Heights were convicted of assaulting another a black man with their radios.
The tensions play out in the crowded ethnic landscape of central Brooklyn, where blacks and Hasidim have lived in proximity for decades. Critics of the shomrim say the groups have leveraged this friction: In one of their recruitment videos, ordinary scenes from Borough Park — people shopping, a young boy learning Torah — are intercut with the image of a black man walking through the neighborhood and eventually stealing a woman’s purse.
Every summer for the last six years, members of the Borough Park shomrim and officers from the 66th Precinct have come together for a softball game called the Greenfield Classic. The annual event, with its free kosher hot dogs and chummy competitive spirit, is named for David G. Greenfield, a city councilman who represents the district.
“They improve police-community relations,” Councilman Greenfield said of the games. “Hundreds of people show up. That’s why, when you walk down the streets of Borough Park, people have respect for the police.”
In many Hasidic neighborhoods, shomrim groups court the police, honoring them at breakfasts at kosher bakeries and attending — sometimes planning — retirement affairs for officials who are leaving the department. When Stephen McAllister took command of the 66th Precinct in 2002, a crowd of Hasidic men, many from the shomrim, stood in line for hours at the station house to welcome him.
“It was a weird, but great, experience,” said Mr. McAllister, now the police commissioner in Floral Park, N.Y. “All of them came in saying: ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so. I’m the most important guy around. Don’t pay any attention to the next guy.’”
In his three years running the precinct, Commissioner McAllister worked closely with the shomrim and came to respect them as liaisons to a community where he would always be an outsider. Once, he recalled, a controversial rabbi came from Israel to speak at a synagogue and some angry members of the audience threw eggs. “I told the shomrim, ‘You go into your own people and shut that down,’” he said. “ If the police had waded into that scenario, it could potentially go bad.”
Of course, this sort of hands-off treatment has led to accusations that the shomrim’s ties to the police can be corrupting. While building relationships with local precincts has been vital for communities where, 40 years ago, calls to the police might have been dealt with slowly, some opponents say that the shomrim have wooed officials into deference.
“Who is really controlling the Borough Park police station?” asked Joe Levin, a Hasidic private investigator who has clashed with the shomrim. “It’s not the N.Y.P.D.”
A few years ago, Mr. Levin said he handled a divorce case where a husband was beating his wife. One day, he added, the woman was hurt so badly that an ambulance removed her from her home on a stretcher. The police and the shomrim were also at the scene, he said, but no one did a thing when the husband rushed out, flipped the stretcher and knocked her to the ground.
“I saw this with my own eyes — everybody did,” Mr. Levin said.
Another case that is mentioned in discussions of the shomrim’s bonds with the police is that of Leiby Kletzky, an 8-year-old boy who in 2011 was murdered after being kidnapped from the streets of Borough Park. Leiby’s parents initially reported his disappearance to the shomrim, who waited at least two hours before calling 911. Though the killer was eventually arrested, Raymond W. Kelly, the police commissioner at the time, said the delayed notification was a “longstanding issue” with the shomrim.
Many shomrim members have attended the Police Department’s Citizens’ Police Academy, a 14-week program where students go through role-playing games and policing simulations, officials of the organizations say.
Mr. Daskal, the safety patrol leader in Borough Park, said the shomrim got nothing from their bonds with the police. “Maybe a mitzvah” — a blessing — he said, “or a feeling that our community is safe.”
But aside from training and certifications, the shomrim have received quite a lot. In 2012, State Senator Simcha Felder, then the city’s deputy comptroller, helped secure money from the City Council for a $300,000 mobile command center for Mr. Daskal’s group. The custom truck, like some that the Police Department owns, has a 12-person conference room and advanced communications technology. This year, Mr. Greenfield alone gave $30,000 to the Borough Park shomrim, according to a Council website. Other patrons, like State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, have also earmarked tens of thousands of dollars to the shomrim over the years.
“We’re not talking about a lot of money and it’s money well spent,” Mr. Hikind said. “There are real things that the shomrim needs money for — insurance, phones, vehicles.”
While Mr. Hikind said “the long marriage” between the shomrim and the police had been a good one, he acknowledged that the relationship had gone through rocky patches.
“Sometimes, if you get very close, you forget the fact that they are the police and we are the shomrim,” he said. “There has to be a barrier. Has it sometimes not been healthy? That could very well be.”
Bribes for Gun Permits
The case of Alex Lichtenstein seems like one of those times. Mr. Lichtenstein, 44, was charged in April with approaching a police officer he knew and offering him thousands of dollars for help obtaining gun permits, which are difficult to obtain in New York. When the officer met with him a second time, according to court papers, he was wearing a recording device and caught Mr. Lichtenstein saying he had already paid a contact in the department $6,000 apiece for nearly 150 licenses. Mr. Lichtenstein suggested, court papers say, that if the officer assisted him, he could earn as much as $900,000 a year.
According to Mr. Daskal, Mr. Lichtenstein joined the shomrim 20 years ago and once served as Borough Park’s liaison to the Police Department, but left the group in 2012 when he moved to suburban Rockland County. Mr. Daskal said Mr. Lichtenstein occasionally returned to the neighborhood, playing in last year’s Greenfield Classic, where James P. O’Neill, the chief of department, threw the first pitch. But Mr. Daskal said the criminal case involving the gun permits had nothing to do with the shomrim.
Shortly before 5 a.m. on Dec. 1, 2013, a young black man named Taj Patterson was walking home through Hasidic Williamsburg after a night out with his friends. Mr. Patterson, a fashion student, was drunk. As he made his way up Flushing Avenue, a local shomrim group received a call about someone vandalizing cars. What was soon a throng of more than a dozen people stopped Mr. Patterson on a quiet stretch of Flushing in between Spencer and Walworth Streets. He resisted; there was a scuffle. Mr. Patterson soon lay on the ground with a crushed eye socket, a torn retina and permanent blindness in his right eye.
Despite his injuries, police interviews with four witnesses and a license plate number of a vehicle that some of the suspects fled in, Mr. Patterson’s case was quickly marked closed.
“It was just outrageous,” said Zahra Patterson, his mother. “In my heart, I feel like there was favoritism with the police when it comes to this community and members of this shomrim group.”
So Mrs. Patterson approached a friend in the news media who put her in touch with reporters at The News. The reporters wrote an article in which Mr. Patterson said his assailants had kicked him and taunted him with homophobic slurs as a crowd cheered them on. It was enough to reopen the investigation and, four months later, five men who prosecutors said were linked to the Williamsburg Shomrim Safety Patrol were charged with gang assault and unlawful imprisonment.
But within a year of the indictments, the case began to falter. In March 2015, charges were dismissed against one of the defendants after a witness who initially identified him failed to recognize him in a lineup. Nine months later, charges were dropped for similar reasons against a second defendant.
Just last month, again citing problems with the witnesses, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office reached a deal with two of the three remaining men in which they pleaded guilty to the indictment’s lowest charge in exchange for serving no prison time. The last defendant is set to go on trial in August.
‘Usurping’ Law Enforcement
Disturbed by Mr. Patterson’s plight, Michael Lesher, a New Jersey lawyer, wrote an opinion article for The Forward last month urging Hasidic Jews to finally speak out against the shomrim.
“For too long,” Mr. Lesher wrote, “we’ve allowed a system of Jewish-run patrols to dominate the heavily Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn, usurping the role of the official police force (with key support from vote-hungry politicians), despite their record of violence toward non-Jews.”
Mr. Lesher, who is Jewish, also questioned the consensus that the watch groups were formed to protect Hasidic residents against anti-Semites or an indifferent secular police force. Instead, he argued, the patrols date from a period when the ultra-Orthodox were already politically ascendant. “Shomrim were never products of Jewish vulnerability,” he wrote. “They were, and are, creatures of Jewish power.”
This is a theme that Mr. Patterson’s lawyer, Andrew Stoll, intends to explore in a lawsuit that accuses the five original defendants of assault and alleges that the Williamsburg patrol was negligent in hiring them. While the group has said that not all of the men charged in the attack were formal members, Mr. Stoll maintained that the difficulties with the criminal case were “without question” caused by the shomrim’s ties to the police.
“To some extent, it is true that only a few bad apples have been involved in all these cases,” Mr. Lesher said in a recent interview. “Most people in them are not out there beating anyone up.”
The deeper problem, he suggested, was a vestigial fear in the Hasidic community that is used to validate abuses by the shomrim.
“We’re not living in ghettos anymore,” Mr. Lesher said. “That is a piece of history that only lives in people’s imaginations — but it’s not what we face today. The fact is, we now have enough clout to run our own semiofficial police forces. And we do.”