There were a number of witnesses when Taj Patterson was attacked by a group of ultra-Orthodox men who yelled homophobic slurs and left him blind in one eye, but it was months until any arrests were made. Police appeared to bury the case until Patterson's mother took it to the media, after which they arrested five alleged members of the Williamsburg Safety Patrol [WSP], the controversial ultra-Orthodox neighborhood patrol group that's recently gotten wrapped up in the FBI's investigation into NYPD corruption.
Patterson is already suing the WSP for the attack, and two of the five arrested pleaded guilty to lesser charges last month, but now a federal complaint is explicitly calling out the city and the NYPD's "deep and questionable ties" to the neighborhood patrols, also known as Shomrim, alleging that their knotty relationships and patterns of favoritism were direct factors in the assault on Patterson and the subsequent investigation.
Patterson is suing the WSP under a federal statute that people typically invoke when suing the police, his lawyer pointed out—but that's intentional, as the suit is arguing that the Shomrim have been improperly acting as an extension of the NYPD, all the while acting outside the city's authority with little to no formal training.
"They're all but a deputized private police force," said Andrew Stoll, one of Patterson's attorneys. "The city essentially has a policy—though not an explicit policy, a deeply embedded enough policy of granting the Shomrim leave to kind of run the streets and the precincts in the neighborhoods where they operate."
Accordingly, the suit takes great care to detail the close ties between the Shomrim, the city, and the NYPD, to make the case that the alleged Shomrim members were acting under color of law when they attacked Patterson. For example, it notes that the city has funded two mobile command centers for the Shomrim, each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, which bear NYPD insignia and are, at first glance, indistinguishable from official police vehicles. The police also provide Shomrim volunteers with police scanners, emergency lights, and the personal phone numbers of high-ranking NYPD officials, privileges that aren't extended to most members of the public, the suit argues.
A Shomrim vehicle pictured in the lawsuit.
The suit also lays out the long history of alleged favoritism and preferential treatment of the city's Orthodox Jewish communities by the NYPD, referencing the 1991 Crown Heights riots and alleging that "fixers" and "liaisons" to the NYPD routinely help void charges against Jewish crime suspects or otherwise give them special treatment. It quotes retired police captain William Plackenmeyer, who in 2003 told Newsday that "in Brooklyn, it almost seemed like there were two penal codes, one for the Hasidic community and one for everyone else."
Had the Shomrim's influence not been so powerful, the suit argues, the police would not have tried to memory-hole the assault on Patterson, only reopening the case when it came under public scrutiny. Because it took so long for the case to be forwarded to the 90th Precinct's Detective Squad, evidence disappeared and witnesses close to the Shomrim recanted their statements, the suit alleges, which led in part to the dismissal of criminal cases against two of the men arrested—Joseph Fried and Aharon Hollender. Abraham Winkler and Pinchas Braver pleaded guilty to lesser charges last month, and Mayer Herskovic, who didn't take that plea deal, will go to trial this August.
While Braver's criminal case was still pending last spring, the suit alleges that he got more special treatment in the form of a special tour of the NYPD's 19th precinct stationhouse in Manhattan—a precinct that was, at the time, commanded by Deputy Inspector James Grant, who was arrested last week for accepting bribes to keep officers "on call" to perform favors for members of the Borough Park Orthodox community.
Grant's arrest came just over a month after three NYPD officers were demoted for allegedly accepting gun license bribes from Alex "Shaya" Lichtenstein, a member of the Boro Park Shomrim. Following those arrests, the city froze funding to that specific patrol, though more funds have since been allocated.
"If I had brought this case two years ago I would have been laughed out of court," Stoll said. "Now everything I say is documented. Everybody knew. Within these neighborhoods and within these precincts, everybody knew exactly what was going on."
Because of the inappropriately inextricable relationships between the Shomrim, the NYPD, and the city, the suit alleges, all three are liable for the violation of Patterson's constitutional rights; his physical and emotional trauma; and his loss of liberty. Currently, the suit is only seeking monetary damages, but Stoll said that they also plan to seek injunctive relief—i.e., mandated policy changes.
"How about, the NYPD should be enjoined from closing the Lincoln Tunnel for visiting diamond merchants that are friends of the Shomrim?" Stoll speculated when asked what that injunctive relief might look like. "How about, get the Shomrim the hell out of the NYPD and get the NYPD the hell out of the Shomrim?"
A spokesperson for the city's Law Department said that Patterson's complaint will be reviewed. The person who answered the phone at the Shomrim declined to comment and referred us to another number, which no one answered.