Orthodox Cops: Separate and Unequal

By Michael Lesher (New York Post)
July 31, 2011

Earlier this month, a horrified New York City reeled under the news that 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, a Hasidic boy in Brooklyn's Borough Park, had been abducted on his way home from a nearby day camp and, the next evening, smothered to death and dismembered by his captor, who was also an Orthodox Jew.

The public got a second shock when it learned that Leiby's disappearance was only belatedly reported to the police, and that a privately run, Orthodox Jewish "patrol" called Shomrim reportedly had video evidence that went unused during the crucial hours before the murder, while untrained Jewish laymen tried to handle the investigation themselves.

And now comes what ought to be shock No. 3: Jewish vigilante groups like Shomrim, unskilled and ill-equipped for police work, and all too often driven by religious proscriptions to keep their community's crimes out of the public eye, are being paid to interfere with the authorities by New York City taxpayers — through the generous offices of some City Council members.

The council's just-finalized budget for 2012 includes more than $130,000 in "member item" donations to private Orthodox Jewish pseudo-police — gifts of taxpayer money that were personally authorized by Democratic Brooklyn City Councilmen Lewis Fidler, David Greenfield, Brad Lander and Stephen Levin. Remember that these Jewish patrols operate only in a few Brooklyn neighborhoods and answer to the needs of only one religious community.

Why, then, are city legislators doling out increasingly scarce public funds to help Jewish gendarmes compete with the NYPD?

I am an Orthodox Jew; I am also a lawyer with an extensive record of advocacy for victims of child abuse. And I have a message for politicians who curry favor with Jewish voting blocs by helping to fund their private patrols: Don't do it.

It's bad government, and bad law enforcement practice, to share taxpayer money with religion-based groups whose contribution to police work is doubtful at best and whose priorities may well conflict with the law.

Not so long ago, a warning against government funding for vigilantes would have been needless. When Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels in 1979, New York City officials, including then-Mayor Ed Koch, didn't want them in New York City at all; those young idealists would have been laughed all the way across the Hudson if they'd had the temerity to ask City Council for handouts.

Does anyone truly believe that Orthodox Jewish vigilantes like the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol, the Williamsburg Safety Patrol and the Shmira Civilian Volunteer Patrol of Borough Park — all of them on the take for budget dollars in 2012 — do the city a better service?

One of the publicly stated purposes of the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol is to deal with "bias crimes." That's doubtless a worthy goal, but one hardly expects a patrol run exclusively by a single religious group to be expert in enforcing anti-discrimination laws.

To put it another way: If the Nation of Islam were to set up a private force of Muslims, ostensibly to scour Harlem for "bias crimes," would City Council members be heaping public money into its coffers?

Orthodox Jewish-run law enforcement is not only an inevitably one-sided affair; there's considerable evidence that its role can be harmful even to members of its own community. Traditional rabbinic authority — which dominates Orthodox decision-making — remains skeptical of reporting crimes allegedly committed by Jews to the police, even when (as in Leiby Kletzky's case) the victims are also Jews.

Consider the "Kol Tzedek" program announced, with much fanfare, by Brooklyn prosecutors in April 2009 in conjunction with the Orthodox bulwark Ohel Children's Home and Family Services agency. According to District Attorney Charles Hynes, the initiative was "aimed at helping sex-crime victims in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish communities report abuse . . . to secular authorities."

But when Ohel announced the same program in its own promotional newsletter, it carefully excised from the DA's press release every reference to police, prosecutors or the reporting of crimes — a move that was especially disturbing from an agency dogged for years by allegations of shirking its own obligation to report suspected child abuse.

For its insult to the DA and his stated law enforcement policy, Ohel was rewarded with $900,000 in federal "earmarks" for fiscal year 2010, approved by then-Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Ohel's oil-and-water attitude toward secular law enforcement is no fluke; at the very moment volunteers were frantically combing Brooklyn for the missing Leiby Kletzky, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, one of America's most influential Orthodox authorities, emphasized at a conference that child sexual abuse allegedly committed by a Jew must be reported first to a rabbi, who then decides whether police should be contacted.

Rabbi Kamenetsky's word is law to most of the Brooklyn Orthodox Jews who run patrols like Shomrim. Yet, in many cases, following his directives on child abuse would violate New York's mandatory reporting statute.

Moreover, if Orthodox patrol members use a threat of force to discourage a Jewish victim from going to the police, based on a similar understanding of rabbinic law, they are violating federal civil rights statutes.

There's already more than enough evidence that current Orthodox practice is unacceptable under applicable legal standards. New York police have criticized Shomrim groups for failing to notify them of some of the calls their operators receive; in fact, it has been widely reported that the Jewish patrols regularly withhold information on suspected child molesters if they are Jewish.

Death threats, signed by dozens of rabbis, appeared some years ago in a Yiddish Brooklyn newspaper against anyone who "informs" on a fellow Jew to secular authorities. And although an amateur detective from the Bobov Hasidic sect is now being touted as the Sherlock Holmes who ultimately led police to Leiby Kletzky's killer, leading members of that same community participated in a systematic cover-up of a serious case of alleged child abuse in 2000, involving not only efforts to silence the alleged victim and his family, but even direct lobbying of the District Attorney's Office, which dropped all charges after a group of rabbis pressured prosecutors with highly questionable "evidence." (Co-writer Amy Neustein and I documented this in detail in a recent book.)

Despite all this, taxpayer-funded largesse to Jewish patrols is becoming a New York City tradition. In 2009, the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol got itself a lavishly outfitted $250,000 "mobile security command center" with "hefty grants from the City Council and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz," according to founder Chaim Deutsch. The 22-foot-long vehicle is equipped with a conference room, computers, a fax machine, a color copier and a flat-panel television screen.

Do you like the idea that New York City residents, Jewish and non-Jewish, paid a quarter of a million dollars to give those resources to an organization whose members may have to ask a rabbi before telling police about a possible crime?

I am sure the great majority of people who serve in Orthodox patrols are honest and dedicated folks who do their best to ensure the safety of their communities. But government handouts for groups like Shomrim is one tradition New York would be much better off without.

Michael Lesher is a writer and lawyer, and a contributor to "Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities & Child Sex Scandals," edited by Amy Neustein (Brandeis University Press).