Several City Council members who bankroll volunteer patrol groups in Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods with their discretionary funds say they will continue to do so amid some recent criticism of how such groups operate.
Following the shocking murder of a lost chasidic boy in Borough Park last month, police sources familiar with the Shomrim groups told The Jewish Week they were concerned about the extent of their accountability and whether they used discretion in reporting some crimes, particularly allegations of sexual abuse, to the police.
The groups are loosely affiliated, but they each operate and are funded separately.
On Sunday, following an op-ed in the New York Post by Michael Lesher, a critic of the Shomrim who considers them vigilantes, the paper on its editorial page called for the Council to stop funding the various groups in Borough Park, Flatbush and Williamsburg.
“Obstructing the police is bad enough,” said the editorial. “But it’s completely unacceptable if that obstruction is being funded by the taxpayer.”
Collectively, the groups received about $130,000 from Council members in the current budget.
On Tuesday four of the Council members who provide that funding, all Brooklyn Democrats, cited their own feedback from police saying the Shomrim groups serve an important role in crime fighting.
“I’m quite certain that The Post is against any sort of member-item funding, not just for Shomrim,” said David Greenfield of Borough Park, who gave the largest sum to a Shomrim — $35,000, according to the City Council’s website. “The Post editorial was misleading, at best, and doesn’t reflect the outstanding service of this volunteer neighborhood watch group. That’s why I am proud to support them and will continue to do so.”
Councilman Lewis Fidler of Marine Park, who gave $18,500 to Flatbush Shomrim this year, said “I have stood in a room with the local precinct commander and heard him thank [the volunteers] profusely for assisting [the cops] in apprehending suspects in local crimes.” Of the criticism, he said “I’m sure that folks who have had crimes perpetrated against them and the [assailants] were caught with the help of Shomrim would have a very different point of view on the subject.”
Councilman Brad Lander, whose district includes parts of Borough Park and who gave the patrol group there $7,500 this year, said he has heard the commanding officer of the 66th Precinct, Deputy Inspector John Sprague, praise the Shomrim group, particularly in the aftermath of the search for Leiby Kletzky.
“I’m a proud supporter of Shomrim,” said Lander. “They volunteer their own time to making the neighborhood safer, which encourages other communities [to do the same.]”
The relationship between 66th Precinct cops and the Shomrim is so friendly that they now face off in an annual summer softball game, organized by Greenfield, which began last year.
The Post and other critics have noted that politicians dole out the funds to Shomrim in order to curry favor with community leaders, which is a widespread complaint about the member-item funding process in general.
“It’s not fraud because no one is benefiting personally,” said Henry Stern of the government watchdog group New York Civic, a former city councilman. “But it is inappropriate. It’s an agency doing something contrary to city policy, which is to let the police do the policing. It’s clearly political. [The politicians] ingratiate themselves.”
Stern added “There are other neighborhoods all across New York that have more serious crime problems. Do they get private armies?”
The Shomrim have made headlines in recent years with crime-stopping actions, including an incident last summer in which four members of the Borough Park Shomrim, which is formally called the Brooklyn South Safety Patrol, were shot while apprehending a man they accused of exposing himself near a yeshiva. All four men recovered.
In December, the Williamsburg Shomrim apprehended suspects in the vicious beating of several chasidic men who later told police they had targeted Jews.
The Shomrim have also had their own brushes with the law. In 1996 some members of the Crown Heights patrol were arrested after beating a black man on the still-tense streets of that racially mixed neighborhood after accusing the man’s nephew of stealing a bicycle.
In 2008, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes likened members of a Shmira group, an offshoot of the more established and respected Shomrim in Crown Heights, to the Crips and Bloods street gangs after a young man who turned out to be the son of a detective was accused of a crime and was assaulted. Hynes later retracted his analogy to the street gang in a letter to The Jewish Week. (The Shmira patrol gets no city funding.)
When Kletzky failed to meet his mother at an appointed time and place last month, his family immediately called the Borough Park Shomrim and only two hours later called the police. Some critics believe Shomrim should have called 911 sooner. But Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said it likely wouldn’t have mattered.
“In this particular case, I don’t see anything that could have been done with a quicker notification,” Kelly told reporters, according to the Wall Street Journal, while adding, “make no mistake about it: We want to be notified right away. We don’t think it’s a good idea to lag in notification to the police.”
Lander, the Brooklyn councilman, said “all crimes need to be reported to the police department, but I support the efforts of folks working hard in the community to make sure all of us are safe. In my conversation with the NYPD they embrace [the Shomrim] as strong partners.”
In an e-mailed statement, Councilman Steven Levin, a Democrat form Williamsburg, told The Jewish Week, “The volunteers of the Williamsburg Shomrim Patrol are dedicated to ensuring the safety of their community, and I remain strongly supportive of the work that they do every day. Last winter, the Williamsburg Shomrim was instrumental in apprehending the suspects in two brutal hate crimes in the neighborhood. This is just one example of the important work these volunteers do on a daily basis.”
Levin gave his local Shomrim patrol $17,500 this year.
Bob Moskowitz, coordinator of the Flatbush Shomrim group, said public funding was instrumental to his group’s operation because, while it accepts private donations, it does not solicit funds from the community it patrols.
“We do no private fundraising, for the simple reason that we don’t want to be put in a position where a crime is committed and we find an individual [who is a sponsor] and we have to think twice."
Moskowitz insisted the group has never withheld information from the police. “You can ask any anti-crime cop and they will tell you that daily and nightly we are there for them and never do we impede any sort of investigation,” he said.
But judging from comments on Thee Rant (formerly NYPD Rant), a blogging site for police officers, at least some believe Shomrim hinders their effectiveness.
"They [are] particularly annoying to many cops in that they often play police rather than simply report crimes," said one poster, "Jack Daniels." "I once had to threaten to arrest a Shomrim member is he continue[s] to interfere with my official duties."