In some parts of the city, when a person witnesses a crime, their first call isn't necessarily to the police: it's to the Shomrim, a network of civilian security patrols in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Members of the volunteer group respond to radio alerts of crimes underway, make civilian arrests, and even drive cars that resemble police cars—but they're not police officers, and the groups' close ties with the NYPD have gotten them wrapped up in the FBI's investigation into NYPD corruption, after a member of the Boro Park Shomrim was accused of trying to bribe an officer into expediting gun licenses. The New York Times takes a broad look at the civilian patrol groups in an in-depth piece today, and scored a few rare quotes from one of the patrols' presidents, who insists that negative stories about the Shomrim are due to just a few "bad apples."
"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," Jacob Daskal, president of the Brooklyn South Safety Patrol, told the Times. "It's always the good ones who get criticized."
And, Daskal says, the Shomrim haven't gotten any special favors from the police, other than "a mitzvah...or a feeling that our community is safe."
Indeed, over the years the Shomrim have rescued children from attempted abductions and helped the NYPD investigate swastika-bearing flyers distributed around Williamsburg, among other things. But as for Daskal's claim that Shomrim members don't get favors from the NYPD, the FBI's investigation tells another story.
In April, Alex "Shaya" Lichtenstein, a member of the Boro Park Shomrim, was charged with bribing NYPD officers to expedite gun licenses, offering up to $6,000 per license, prosecutors said. He'd been allegedly running that scheme for three years, and, following his arrest, three NYPD officers who'd allegedly accepted Lichtenstein's bribes were demoted.
Speaking with the Times, Daskal denied the Shomrim's involvement in that scheme, and other officials have said that Lichtenstein was no longer a member of the patrol, despite photos taken a week before his arrest that appeared to show him at meeting between the Shomrim and the NYPD's 66th Precinct.
Immediately after that corruption scandal came to light, the city froze funding to that Shomrim branch, withholding $35,000 in taxpayer dollars that had been set aside for the group last summer by Brooklyn councilmen David Greenfield and Chaim Deutsch. Until the city could determine that the group was a "responsible vendor," a City Hall spokesperson said at the time, the mayor would not sign off on the payments—but in the mayor's $82.1 billion budget approved by the City Council on Monday, another $35,000 was set aside for the Boro Park patrol.
Dov Hikind, a state assemblyman who's helped the Shomrim get tens of thousands of dollars over the years, told the Times that "we're not talking about a lot of money and it's money well spent...There are real things that the Shomrim needs money for—insurance, phones, vehicles." Other politicians have helped the Shomrim secure funding for things such as a $300,000 mobile command center on par with what the NYPD uses, the Times reports.
Then there are the reports that the Shomrim try to avoid police involvement when their own members are involved. In 2011, a member of a Crown Heights shomrim group was extradited from Israel, where he'd fled after being named as a suspect in the beating of a young black man whose father was an NYPD officer. And five members of a shomrim patrol were arrested in 2014 in conjunction with the beating of Taj Patterson, a gay black man who they accused of vandalizing cars in the neighborhood. Two of those arrested pleaded guilty to lesser charges several weeks ago.
At the time of their plea deals, Michael Lesher, an attorney and Orthodox Jew himself, wrote an op-ed in The Forward begging members of Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox enclaves to speak out against the Shomrim and urging them to "spare [him] the line about Shomrim protecting vulnerable communities from the wrath of anti-Semites or the indifference of secular police. That story doesn't hold water."
"For too long 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," Lesher wrote. "And for years we've held our tongues as the patrols' unchecked behavior carried on...we knew what was happening—but, collectively, we Orthodox Jews kept it to ourselves."