A look inside NYC’s 2019 antisemitic hate crime reports
Some New York police officers, even those who respond to cases of antisemitic graffiti in Orthodox swaths of Brooklyn, don’t seem to know how to spell “swastika” or “yarmulke.”
Surveillance cameras, even those in the subway, cannot always be relied upon to capture vandals who paint or carve hateful messages.
And police officers frequently either fail to inform victims about their rights to seek compensation from the state, as is required by law, or fill out the related forms inaccurately.
These are some of the things we learned combing through more than 1,800 pages of New York Police Department records on crimes referred to the Hate Crime Task Force because officers suspected anti-Jewish motivation in 2019. What we did not learn was what percentage of such crimes led to arrests and prosecution that year; whether the perpetrators or victims fell into any distinguishable demographic patterns; or how much worse antisemitic activity was across Brooklyn than it had been in prior years.
That’s because the N.Y.P.D., which turned over the records via DVD only after the Forward sued demanding them under the state’s public records law, did not include the more than 30 cases that are pending in criminal court. (The department did not tell the Forward how many records were withheld — this number is based on a comparison between the number of cases that were delivered versus the department’s tally of antisemitic hate crimes from 2019).
The records officer for the department said that the “disclosure of the records would interfere with ongoing judicial proceedings or criminal investigations.” Joseph Aron, the lawyer from Aron Law who is representing the Forward, said that the N.Y.P.D.’s assertion is “completely misplaced.”
“Many of these documents have already been handed over to the alleged perpetrator/defendant in the underlying criminal proceeding,” he said in an email. “It is therefore perplexing to understand how their release to the Forward would necessarily interfere with those judicial proceedings.”
While the department rejected our attempts to access the records administratively, we anticipate that the court will compel the N.Y.P.D. to disclose the withheld records.
A spokesperson, after initially indicating she would make officers available for an interview, ultimately declined. The department, in response to nearly 50 emailed questions about the patterns outlined in this report, provided only the following statement:
“The N.Y.P.D. will never tolerate hate in our city in any form. The N.Y.P.D. has the largest Hate Crime Task Force in the country comprised of investigators that work tirelessly with our patrol officers, detective squads and community leaders to vigorously investigate every reported hate crime.”
Without the criminal-court cases, it is impossible to do any meaningful macro-analysis of the trends. But the records we have do provide at least a foggy window into how the police handle antisemitic hate crimes.
Here are some of the interesting things we found:
Does a swastika misspelled hurt as deep?
Of the 208 cases that we got records about, the majority, nearly 80%, involved vandalism or graffiti, and most of those involved swastikas. That is consistent with the findings of the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, which said that 76% of anti-Jewish complaints in 2019 were for swastika vandalism.
But on Feb. 17, 2019, on 11th Avenue in Manhattan, officers discovered a “swatzika” on the front of Bedrock Mini Storage. On May 10, a vandal drew a ten-inch “swasticka” on the inside of a bathroom door at a subway station in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn. In Astoria on June 13, an officer discovered “swatzstikas,” carved into trees in front of stately brick homes on 28th street. A little more than a week later, an officer wrote of three “swatstikas” carved into a wall, door and staircase in the apartment building Boro Park Village. On Aug. 20, officers learned of a “swatsticka” drawn on a pillar at a subway station at 44th Drive and 21st Street in Queens.
Yarmulke, the Yiddish term for the skullcap religious Jews wear, is an admittedly difficult word to spell. It might be derived from the Polish word “jarmułka,” which also means skullcap, and many prefer the simpler “kippah,” which means “dome” in Hebrew but refers to the same head covering.
But some of New York’s finest have taken phoneticization to a new low in these reports. It is, variously, rendered as “yamaka” and “yamica,” which at least sound basically right if said fast in a Brooklyn accent, but also the just plain wrong “yakama,” which is the name of a Native American tribe in Washington state.
To be fair, these mistakes were made by regular beat cops at precincts around the city. The reports filled out by members of the Hate Crimes Task Force did not contain such errors.
Indeed, some of the butchered words were on reports about incidents in neighborhoods with few Jews where antisemitic hate crimes are rare, and perhaps those offending officers should be forgiven. But what about the officer in the 77th precinct, home to Educational Institute Oholei Torah, the flagship yeshiva for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, who responded to the Nov. 25, 2019 case of a “yakama” knocked-off the head of a 14-year-old white male whose name was redacted?
Another officer twice described the “swatzika” painted on a street sign at Astor Place and 8th Street on Sept. 30 — a central stomping ground for New York University students, 14% of whom are Jewish.
In a post-9/11 world, many Americans, and especially New Yorkers, assume we are under constant video surveillance. Some of the N.Y.P.D.’s hate-crime police reports indicate otherwise.
Perpetrators responsible for antisemitic graffiti found on a movie poster on a subway platform at 4th Avenue & Union Street on Aug. 20, for example, went unapprehended in part because there was not surveillance video trained on the spots where the graffiti was made.
So, too, for whoever drew swastikas and wrote “Heil Hitler” on an MTA bus in Queens on June 17, spray-painted a black swastika on a park bench in the Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Center last Dec. 28 and wrote in black marker in an 103rd street subway stop, “Kill all Jews” with two swastikas on November 10.
Then there are cases like the Sept. 29 one in which someone pulled a visibly Orthodox woman’s wig off and threw a bottle and rocks at her near Tompkins Avenue and Ellery Street in Brooklyn, an incident caught on video.
The closing report on the incident, though, says the “video collected is not identification quality,” and the case was closed without an arrest under the classification “investigative leads exhausted.”
When a photo mural in front of the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights was vandalized on Jan. 1, the department noted that the “video cameras at location are not working.” That case, too, was closed under “investigative leads exhausted,” with a report noting that there were “no cameras facing location of occurrence.”
Pro Forma Forms
For the more than 200 incidents for which the department shared records, there were complaint reports that are supposed to include details about how cases were classified and whether victims were notified of their rights to apply for compensation.
But the manner of classifying crimes was not consistent — some nearly identical swastika-graffiti crimes, for example, were classified as “making graffiti” while others were “criminal mischief” and still others were “aggravated harassment.” The department declined to answer questions about why officers would be classifying these crimes differently.
The shorthand officers use was also inconsistent: some cases were marked “agg harassment” and others “harass agg.”
Officers also noted in the vast majority of cases that victims were not told of their rights to victim’s compensation, a notification that is required by law.
The state will sometimes pay — up to $30,000 in some cases — to people who lost wages, have to pay for a burial, need transportation to court, have to pay for medical and counseling expenses, have to replace lost or stolen essential property like eyeglasses, or who need to move as a result of the crime. Applicants complete a form and are granted money if they meet certain requirements, including physical injury or psychological trauma.
The N.Y.P.D. has cards with information about how victims can apply for these funds and other help from victim-assistance programs, said Janine Kava, a spokesperson for New York’s criminal justice services office. And, she noted, the law also requires police reports to include a place where officers can acknowledge whether (or not) the information has been provided to a victim as required.
But for 191 of the 222 victims listed in the reports, the officers wrote that they did not notify them of their rights. (Some cases had multiple victims.)
In one case on Aug. 29, a Hasidic man was struck by what appeared to be blocks of ice while driving in his work truck in Crown Heights. He suffered a small injury to his head and was treated by emergency-medical services, but according to the police report, he was not notified of the crime-victim compensation law.
The N.Y.P.D. did not respond to requests for comment on this matter.
Joseph Giacalone, a former N.Y.P.D. detective and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that officers may be notifying victims but not noting it on the forms.
“It could be done verbally; they just forgot to check the box,” he said.
But Brandan Davies, a criminal defense lawyer at Roth Davies, said the inconsistencies in the records suggest at least a lack of clarity — and perhaps a lack of care.
“If an officer values the importance of their role in pursuing justice for a victim or preventing future crimes, it will be reflected in the level of attention and completeness with which the officer completes their reports,” he said in an email. “Similarly, if an officer personally feels there is little value or little chance of success in their pursuit of a particular crime, they are far more likely to produce substandard or inaccurate reports.”
The Good Samaritans
In several cases, the police reports show the importance of witnesses who see crimes in action and those who call in crimes already completed like swastika graffiti.
This was an upshot in the hundreds of pages of reports about acts thought to be motivated by Jew-hatred last year.
Some were individuals who took time out of their days to report antisemitic graffiti on the street to the police. Others were victims themselves who swallowed their fear to make sure the police had their experiences on record.
On Nov. 2, 2019, a witness observed “several persons chase after a Hassidic male and possibly assault him” in Borough Park, according to a police report. “He was able to jot down a possible license plate.”
While it’s not clear if the victim himself ever came forward, with the help of this 46-year-old male witness, whose name was redacted, the police department closed the case after making an arrest in Jan. of 2020.
In another case, on March 3, 2019, a 28-year-old woman left her home in Greenpoint and noticed black swastikas in front of 113 Newell Street. She notified the police, and a month later, officers from the 94th precinct caught Glenn Merto, a white-supremacist responsible for multiple instances of antisemitic graffiti, in the act of “placing a slap sticker containing a swastika on a NYC call box.” Merto pleaded guilty to aggravated harassment and was sentenced on Nov. 12, 2020, to three years of probation, according to court records
In another case on June 13, 2019, a Jewish man waiting for a Manhattan-bound J train was berated by a suspect who said “all you Jews can die” and that he would “come back and kill all you Jews.” The victim recorded the suspect on his cell phone before the suspect tried to throw it on the tracks, and officers arrested a man named Brandon Miller a day later. Miller’s court records were not accessible through the state’s online portal.
Without individuals like these, we would not know about the many instances of antisemitism in New York City.
Sarah Brown and Virginia Jeffries contributed reporting.