In Boro Park, Brooklyn, there are two police forces.
One drives cars with flashing lights, is dispatched over walkie-talkies, and has a blue-and-black shield for a logo.
The other is the New York City Police Department.
The Shomrim security patrol, as the local civilian force is known, is in part a pastime for traditionally observant Jewish men who like dressing up as cops, and in part a dead-serious police force that’s accrued immense power in this insular, Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn neighborhood.
The group’s 100-plus members rush through Boro Park streets in black SUV’s and police-style cruisers, responding to emergencies reported to their private emergency hotline. In one 2010 incident, they beat a man bloody before cops arrived. When the police do show up, Shomrim snap pictures as police arrest the suspects the Shomrim have, at times, already detained.
Now, a sprawling FBI investigation into corrupt relationships between Orthodox activists and the NYPD is drawing new attention to longstanding concerns about the group’s influence in the neighborhood, and its unusually close ties to the NYPD’s 66th Precinct in Boro Park.
On April 17, a Shomrim leader named Shaya Lichtenstein was arrested on charges that he attempted to bribe a police officer into helping him secure gun licenses, which are tightly regulated in New York City by the police department.
Lichtenstein met the officer he allegedly tried to bribe through his involvement in the Shomrim, according to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
“I’ll give you… more than you’ll make in the police department,” Lichtenstein allegedly told the officer.
The arrest of Lichtenstein came a week after New York media identified Jeremy Reichberg, a Boro Park Hasidic activist with with close ties to the 66th Precinct, as being one of two Orthodox men at the center of an FBI corruption investigation. The 66th Precinct’s longtime community affairs officer has been placed on modified duty amid the ongoing FBI probe, as has one former commanding officer of the 66th Precinct. Other top police brass have been disciplined and transferred.
Reichberg, sources say, was an independent operator in Boro Park; not a member of the Shomrim, but a rival who tried to build his own relationships with the police there. In early statements to the press, police officials asserted that the FBI investigation addressed a narrow problem among a few bad officers. “It goes to perhaps bad judgment among a small group of people,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Lawrence Byrne told the New York Times on April 7.
But as more details of the FBI probe have been revealed police commissioner Bill Bratton has admitted that the scandal is the worst to hit the NYPD in decades.
The arrest of Lichtenstein raises questions about the vast network of relationships with government and police that the Shomrim have cultivated in recent years; ties that have won them government grants, close on-the-street cooperation with cops, and strong social bonds with officers throughout the NYPD. These ties have helped the Shomrim increase their influence, while giving the 66th Precinct help in managing security within Boro Park’s difficult-to-penetrate Hasidic world.
The Shomrim, headquartered on 14th Avenue in Boro Park, consist entirely of married Orthodox men, many of them owners of small Boro Park businesses. While the criminal complaint against Lichtenstein asserts that he is a member of the Shomrim, officials with the group say he dropped out after moving to Rockland County. Yet Lichtenstein played on the Shomrim softball team in an August 2015 game against the 66th Precinct, and a photo tweeted from the official Shomrim twitter account less than a week ago appears to show Lichtenstein in attendance at a Shomrim meeting with the current commanding officer of the 66th Precinct about the upcoming Passover holiday.
Founded in the early 1990s as the Bakery Boys, a loose gang of young Hasidic men who worked nighttime delivery jobs, the Shormim were formalized under the tutelage of the 66th Precinct. The group was officially incorporated in 1995 as the Shmira Civilian Volunteer Patrol of Boro Park. (Confusingly, Shmira is also the name of a rival Boro Park volunteer patrol. The original group is known on the streets as the Shomrim, despite the official designation on its tax forms.) Today, the Boro Park Shomrim are largely government-funded, according to the group’s tax filings, with New York City giving the organization over $300,000 since 2011. New York City Council member David Greenfield alone has directed more than $100,000 to the group during that period. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s liaison to the Jewish community, Pinny Ringel, is a former member. One of the Shomrim leaders, Marc Katz, is president of the city-supported Community Council that advises the 66th Precinct.
As a result of the federal investigation, the city froze $35,000 worth of city contracts with the Shomrim, according to a report in Politico New York.
The NYPD declined to make the current commanding officer of the 66th Precinct, Captain Kenneth Quick, available for an interview. But from the group’s early days up until just weeks ago, police officials who work with the Shomrim on the ground have seemed particularly enamored of them.
In a 2015 interview posted on the local Jewish news website JPUpdates, Quick called the Shomrim a “good force multiplier.”
And Joseph Esposito, a former top-ranked NYPD official who was stationed at the 66th Precinct from 1986 until the early 1990s, eventually serving as the precinct’s commanding officer, said he “felt the Shomrim, the Bakery Boys that run in the 6-6, was one of the best-run, most controlled civilian patrols I’ve ever experienced in my tenure in the police department.” Esposito went on to become the Chief of Department, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the NYPD, and serves today as commissioner of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management.
“What we did in the 6-6 could be a model for the rest of the city,” he said.
The Shomrim reinforce their ties to police through official dinners and fancy parties. On March 22, a Shomrim coordinator and a member of its board of directors, Simcha Bernath, hosted a meal at a pricey Boro Park kosher steakhouse for roughly 30 NYPD officers and brass, including Quick and the high-ranking commander of Patrol Borough Brooklyn South, Assistant Chief Steven M. Powers. Also in attendance was Deputy Chief Eric Rodriguez, Powers’s second-in-command, who was transferred to desk duty on April 8 amid the FBI investigation.
A skirt steak entrée at The Loft costs $42, according to the restaurant’s website.
The meal was held to thank police brass for sending officers to a birthday party for a child with a long-term illness hosted by the charity Kids of Courage. Stuart Ditchek, Kids of Courage’s founder, said that the dinner was organized by Bernath, who had served as a liaison between the charity and the police. Ditchek said that the dinner was paid for by a donor whose identity he did not know. Bernath did not respond to messages left by the Forward.
On the streets, Shomrim assist the police in catching suspects, and, according to community sources, intercede on Orthodox Jews’ behalf to mitigate police involvement in their affairs.
Joe Levin, a private security consultant who works within the Orthodox community, told the Forward that the Shomrim have “full control of the 66th Precinct.” Levin said that when Shomrim respond to an incident in which they have a personal interest, they “control the situation.”
Shomrim leadership has advocated for police to kept in the dark when Orthodox Jews commit domestic violence. In 2012, amid a public debate over police access to new publicly-funded security cameras being posted throughout Boro Park, Shomrim president Jacob Daskal told the Forward that giving police direct access to the cameras could lead to unwanted police interference in domestic violence cases.
“The camera is very good for the community, but if it’s a private thing,” Daskal told the Forward at the time. “If it’s a public thing it might hurt a person who doesn’t want to arrest her husband for domestic violence.”
Reached on April 19, Daskal insisted that the Shomrim’s only role was to act as the “eyes and ears for the police department.” Daskal, who was an original Bakery Boy and the founder of the Shomrim, said that the Shomrim themselves can’t always call the police if they are not on the scene. “The complainer has to call the police,” he said. “We see a crime, the police is called.”
One former Shomrim member named Tzvi Zucker told the Forward that Daskal had opposed involving the police in fights between Jews. Zucker, who left Boro Park and the Shomrim more than a decade ago, said that he had advocated calling the cops when members of the Orthodox community brawled with each other. Daskal, Zucker said, disagreed, and thought that police should be left out of those fights. “He said no,” Zucker said. “[Daskal said] ‘We are here to make peace.’”
Daskal denied that he had ever opposed calling police on fights between Jews. “If there’s a crime, you have to call the police,” he said.
Zucker also said that Daskal had been able to arrange for Jews arrested by the 66th Precinct on minor crimes to be released with a desk appearance ticket ordering them to appear before a judge at a later date, rather than being processed through the central booking system.
Daskal denied that he had played that role.
Police precincts generally have discretion over whether to issue desk tickets or to process suspects through central booking, which involves long waits in holding cells. New policing initiatives introduced earlier this year by the de Blasio administration aim to increase police reliance on desk tickets as an alternative to forcing people to spend the night in jail.
The Boro Park Shomrim’s official Twitter feed includes scores of photos of Shomrim members, dressed in jackets that look similar to official police windbreakers, standing by as NYPD officers handcuff suspected criminals. The captions often suggest that the Shomrim played a role in the arrest, saying that it was “[thanks] to a quick response by Shomrim,” or “[thanks] to our units.”
The 66th Precinct, on its own Twitter feed, has praised the Shomrim, reporting on April 7 that: “#teamwork with our anti-crime & @BPShomrim led to 2 arrests for graffiti on New Utrecht Ave #caughtredhanded #coldbusted”
At times, the Shomrim’s police-style activities have had disastrous consequences. In September 2010, Shomrim responded to a call that a man was masturbating in his car on a Boro Park avenue. The ensuing encounter between a 33-year-old man named David Flores and a group of Shomrim ended with Flores beaten and four Shomrim shot, none of them fatally. Flores’s lawyer argued that Flores had acted in self-defense, and in 2013 he was acquitted of public lewdness, and of assault and attempted murder charges connected with the shooting. “The Shomrim can’t decide they’re going to be judge, jury and executioner in the middle of the street,” a juror told the Daily News at the time.
Despite the acquittals on the attempted murder charges, Flores was found guilty of criminal possession of a weapon and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He is eligible for parole in December 2020. In court on the day of his January 2014 sentencing, Flores asked why the Shomrim who had beaten him had faced no legal consequences. “Your Honor, what is the penalty for a hate crime?” he asked. “These people are responsible for beating me ruthlessly, yet they get nothing.”
For criminal defense attorneys tasked with defending people detained by the Shomrim, the quasi-legitimized police actions taken by the force can be confounding. “They perform any number of law enforcement functions, as we can tell from the record, and have none of the responsibility or accountability that one would expect,” said Susannah Karlsson, a special litigation counsel for Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents indigent defendants in Brooklyn. Karlsson was speaking generally about all of Brooklyn’s Shomrim groups, which exist independently in separate neighborhoods, including Flatbush, Williamsburg and Crown Heights. She said that Shomrim interact with her firm’s clients as law enforcement agents, but cannot be held accountable in the same way that police officers can.
“There’s a real failure when we allow non-law enforcement officers who are not accountable to the constitution or the laws and expectations we have of public law enforcement officers” to act as law enforcement, Karlsson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Simcha Bernath as a Kids of Courage volunteer. In fact, while he organized the dinner at The Loft at which Kids of Courage thanked police, he is not a regular volunteer for the organization.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.