September 3, 2010In Protecting Hasidic Neighborhoods, Squads Patrol Without Guns or BadgesBy COREY KILGANNONNY TIMES
On Thursday night in Brooklyn, a suspect was chased and quickly surrounded by a group of patrolmen in blue uniform jackets who ordered him to halt.
The man, David Flores, 33, who witnesses say was fondling himself in front of children in a Hasidic section of Brooklyn known as Borough Park, was about to be caught by the men in blue. He began shooting at the men, all unarmed, with a .22-caliber handgun, the authorities said, hitting and wounding four before being tackled.
Although these streets are in the jurisdiction of the New York Police Department — the 66th Precinct — these patrolmen were not police officers. In fact, two were bakers, one was a dry cleaner and the fourth sells insurance.
They were volunteers with the Brooklyn South Safety Patrol, a licensed, unarmed civilian group. They wore blue jackets with emblems, but they also wore skull caps and had forelocks of the Hasidic. They yelled in Yiddish as chaos erupted about 8 p.m. on 49th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.
Within minutes, the area was swarming with patrol members, who roped off the area with yellow crime scene tape — marked “shomrim,” a word derived from the Hebrew word for guards.
While few outside the community are familiar with the group, the shooting cast a spotlight on it and its role on the streets. There are similar groups in Brooklyn’s three other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods: Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Flatbush.
In Borough Park, the patrol members are as natural a sight as men in black coats and hats. Many area residents are more likely to call the patrol’s hot line number than 911.
The calls go to the Brooklyn shomrim communications center — a phone in a truck tire repair shop owned by Sam and Mendy Rosenberg. The brothers go from fixing tires to answering about 100 calls a day and then dispatching shomrim responders by radio.
“We have a faster response than the police, about a minute and a half,” said Mendy Rosenberg, his big hands and mechanic’s outfit smeared with grease. If a suspect is trying to escape by car, he can call upon hundreds of people to block streets and bridge entrances.
“I can shut down the streets in half of Brooklyn in seconds — instant traffic jam,” he said. “We’ve trapped many perps that way.”
The Borough Park shomrim was formed more than 20 years ago and informally called the Bakery Boys because the original members were bakers who delivered bread at night and saw a lot of car break-ins.
The force works out of a small headquarters on 14th Avenue above a hardware store, and the members respond to matters ranging from burglary to shoplifting to missing children. Some drive vehicles with official emblems, but mostly they work — two to a vehicle, like police patrols — in their personal cars, some with lights and sirens, many without. The tools of the trade are a light jacket and a walkie-talkie. They mix Yiddish and police jargon.
“Our role is to try and get the police to an incident as quickly as possible and make sure they apprehend the perp or address the problem,” said Simcha Bernath, the shomrim’s coordinator. Members do not carry batons, pepper spray or handcuffs, he said, and they try to detain suspects only as a last resort.
“If it looks like they will get away before the police come, we will try to hold them in a professional way,” said Mr. Bernath, an accountant by trade.
Brooklyn shomrim groups have not been without controversy, like accusations of vigilantism and actions that stoke racial tensions. In a 1996 case, several members of a Crown Heights group were arrested after they were accused of beating up a black man whose nephew they suspected of a bike theft.
A police spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said there was a “long tradition” of citizen block watches and citizen patrols, like the shomrim. The department has had a “close working relationship” with them, he said.
“These are citizen volunteers,” he said, “and so there is always the concern that they keep their own personal safety in mind and that their mission is to kind of be eyes and ears, and radio for the police or call for the police, particularly if there is a dangerous situation.”
It is not unusual for members to encounter gunfire. In fact, on Monday night the same Borough Park shomrim patrol helped foil an armed bank robbery and was fired upon before helping to track down the robber. But Thursday was the first time that shomrim members were hit, members said. Two remained hospitalized on Friday.
Police officials said charges against Mr. Flores, who accidentally shot himself in the left arm during the attack, included attempted murder, assault and criminal use of a firearm. The authorities said he had a long history of arrests.
Some patrol members complained that the police had ignored their report of an encounter with the same man a week earlier, but the police said they had no knowledge of it .
Regardless, Mr. Bernath said, the shomrim has “a good working relationship” with the local precinct.
“The precinct is really doing anything and everything to help the community,” he said, adding that the police “act fairly and professionally with the information we give them.”
Al Baker contributed reporting.