By Seth Berkman (Jewish Daily Forward)
October 18, 2012
Jewish leaders’ reaction to a video of New York police beating a young man resisting arrest recently in an Orthodox-sponsored center highlighted a complex reality about the community’s relations with law enforcement.
For many, the police are seen as a crucial source of protection from threatening neighbors, but also as a force whose conduct when acting within the community can often be a source of concern.
“We have so many issues here that need to be addressed, and the New York Police Department ignores our pleas for assistance, for cooperation, for understanding, for compassion,” Barry Sugar, founder of the Brooklyn based Jewish Leadership Council, told a press conference October 15, one day after the video was posted.
Sugar’s organization aptly exemplifies the two-edged nature of the Orthodox community’s stance toward New York’s finest. While aggressive in pushing the NYPD to better protect Orthodox Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council has strongly protested several cases in which the police have gone after Orthodox Jews for alleged wrongdoing. In 2008, when the police arrested Yitzhak Shuchat for allegedly beating Andrew Charles, the son of a black police officer, on the streets of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, Sugar’s group denounced the NYPD’s actions as “outrageous if not illegal.” Subsequently, when Shuchat fled to Israel after being charged, the group condemned the extradition request filed with Israel by District Attorney Charles Hynes as “a gross miscarriage of justice.”
At the press conference, State Assembly member Dov Hikind said he was a “great supporter of the New York Police Department” but termed the behavior of the two officers involved in the arrest depicted on the video “unconscionable.” “There has been a breakdown between the Jewish community in Crown Heights and the 71st precinct,” Hikind said. “Things are not good between the precinct and its commander in being responsive to the community in Crown Heights, and that needs to change as of today.”
In November 2011, Hikind also wrote a letter to the Israeli Minister of Justice to block the extradition of Shuchat, claiming that the local authorities had wrongly targeted the Crown Heights resident. Hikind went on to say that since the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when police failed to protect the community from attacks by others, including some from the neighboring black community, there had been a “relative, harmonious co-existence and mutual respect between the African-American and Jewish communities,” in large part due to the NYPD.
In the silent video, which was posted on Jewish websites on October 14, police are seen pummeling a barechested young man, Ehud Halevy, on the night of October 8 after he resisted an attempt to handcuff and arrest him at the Aliya Institute, a center for troubled youth in Crown Heights.
Institute officials said he was sleeping there that night with their permission, though it was a guard at the center who called the police in regarding Halevy for unclear reasons. The NYPD announced they are investigating whether excessive force was used.
Among local Jewish groups, the video generated debate over the effectiveness of the police department. Zaki Tamir, a member of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, said at the press conference, that “over the past few years, we’ve really had an opportunity to develop a relationship with the police and it’s really set us back.”
But Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, told the Forward that he viewed the incident “as more of an aberration… I don’t think it’s part of a larger problem.”
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College who wrote “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry,” said Orthodox Jews in neighborhoods like Crown Heights view the police as “kind of a bulwark against other minorities from making their lives more miserable.” Heilman said Orthodox communities have long respected the police and have emulated them through their own street patrols, groups they have come to hold in higher regard than actual law enforcement agencies.
In neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Boro Park, the Shomrim and Shmira are two community patrols that Orthodox residents regularly call before they call NYPD. When 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky went missing in July 2011, the first calls were made to the Shomrim. The police were not notified until more than two hours later. Kletzky was later found slain.
According to Ben Hirsch, a spokesman for Survivors for Justice, for years the NYPD has also had little direct knowledge of sexual abuse allegations in the Orthodox community. Hirsch, whose group advocates against child sexual abuse in the community, said: “Generally allegations are reported to rabbis first and the rabbi tells the accuser: ‘We’ll deal with it. Don’t report this to the authorities until we give you permission to do so,’ at which point it gets covered up. It’s very rare that allegations reach law enforcement once reported to a rabbi.”
For their part, the community patrols describe their relations with the NYPD as mutually beneficial. In October, the lead story on Crown Heights’s Shmira website had the headline “Shmira’s partnership with the Police Department keeps bearing fruits!” [sic] after the two coordinated the arrest of cell phone robbers.