Monday, February 07, 2011

The Guardian Angels of Baltimore

Back in 1977 Curtis Sliwa formed a controversial anti crime activist group in response to a crime wave in New York City. He called it the Guardian Angels. It was controversial in part because by its very existence it cast aspersions on how effective the police were. It was also involved in some questionable policing practices. I am not here to judge Curtis Sliwa or the Guardian Angels one way or another. I only mention them since I believe that they are the model for a Jewish group of similar intentions called Shomrim.

I have always had issues with organizations like this. They consist of Jewish (mostly Orthodox) volunteers who keep watch over communities with large Jewish populations in neighborhoods that are experiencing crime. Their goal is to try and prevent it or deal with it quickly as it happens. They serve and protect Jews and are generally located in areas where demographic changes have been accompanied by a higher crime rate.

Of course ‘serving and protecting’ is what the police are for. In most cases they do a good job. But in some neighborhoods they simply do not have the man power needed to do the job right. That’s where organizations like Shomrim come in. They take over where the police leave off. And they have been pretty effective in many cases.

But Like I said, I do have issues with these groups. The question is do my issues outweigh the good they do?

The situation described in the Washington Post illustrates my frustration. On the one hand it can be quite a Kiddush HaShem and on the other it can be the opposite. One that can result even though it was not the intended consequence. The opening lines in this article are a clear example of a Kiddush HaShem:

When Pauline Watson felt threatened by teenagers loitering outside her condominium in this city's Park Heights neighborhood, she didn't call the police. She called Shomrim.

"We were scared, okay?" said the 65-year-old African American, adding that most tenants in her building are elderly.

Police in this
crime-ridden city have their hands full with more serious matters, Watson said, and often cannot respond quickly to non-emergency calls in her working-class neighborhood. Shomrim was on the scene within minutes, she said, and dispersed the teenagers peacefully.

How wonderful this story is. An identifiably Orthodox group formed to police the neighborhood responded to a call for help by an older black woman and took care of the problem immediately. Truly a Kiddush Hashem.

Since 2005, Shomrim, an Orthodox Jewish volunteer unit, has added a layer of safety to this city, residents such as Watson say. Calling themselves additional "eyes and ears" for the police, more than 30 Shomrim volunteers man a year-round, 24/7 hotline, responding to 130-150 calls for help each month.

Maj. Johnny Delgado, commander of Baltimore City Police Department's Northwest District, where Shomrim patrols, calls the citizen squad "invaluable."

I wish stories like this would end there. But unfortunately they usually don’t and they didn’t this time either:

A recent violent encounter between Shomrim and a black teen sparked a larger confrontation between the city's black and Jewish communities, with both groups accusing the other of harassment and racial hostility.

In November, a black 15-year-old accused Baltimore Shomrim volunteers of accosting him on the street, striking him on the head with a radio and saying, "You don't belong around here" - a predominantly Jewish section of Park Heights.

Eliyalu Eliezer Werdesheim, 23, a Shomrim volunteer and former Israeli special forces soldier, and his brother Avi Werdesheim, 20, who does not work with Shomrim, have been charged with false imprisonment, second-degree assault and possession of a deadly weapon.

What a contrast between stories! I am not prepared to call the second story a Chilul HaShem. At least not yet. I simply do not know the details of what happened. But it certainly is not a Kiddush HaShem if it happened the way it is being reported here.

It is very possible – and even likely that that the young black teen who was the ‘victim’ of that violent encounter was not behaving responsibly in that neighborhood. I say ‘likely’ based on the fact that these Shomrim have a history of positive responses to all who call upon them for help regardless of race or religion.

But I have to wonder if that was entirely the case here. Was there an over-reaction because of racial profiling by Orthodox Jews in this particular case? It’s certainly possible. That is the position taken by black community activists in Baltimore who accuse Shomrim of being a violent fringe group. They say that Shomrim should diversify or disband.

Based on the way this group is described in the opening lines of the article I am inclined to be Dan L’Kav Zechus for these young Jews. Their intent was probably only to protect the neighborhood from someone they probably saw as threatening. But it is also very possible that they over-reacted and are guilty as charged. And if that is the case it will end up as a Chilul HaShem.

The question is: Is it worth it? Is it worth having a ‘Jewish only’ group of Guardian Angels who are not professionally trained and whose tactics may end up hurting innocent people? One might be tempted to say yes, considering the service they provide on the whole to the entire Community – Jewish or otherwise. The good certainly seems to outweigh the bad. But if innocent people can get hurt, I’m not sure it is worth it. At least not without the following.

First these people should be professionally trained. Second I am inclined to agree with at least one thing that black community activist said. Let these Shomrim include members of other ethnicities as part of their group. That will serve to avoid any possible misunderstandings in the future. It is still possible that innocent people will get hurt. But at least if there are other ethnicities on board – a Chilul HaShem will have a better chance of being avoided.