Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hatzalah and Shomrim

I have never been a fan of creating our own services when these services were already available via the city or state. If there is a police force or an emergency trauma response force like 911 in place sufficient for the public welfare, I see no need to create a parallel system that caters specifically to Jews.

Hatzalah which is the Orthodox Jewish community’s version of 911 and Shomrim which is basically the Orthodox version of a civilian police force are two such organizations.

As I understand it Hatzalah was created to better deal with emergencies in the Frum Community. Apparently response times from ambulances to 911 calls in New York had always been relatively slow. Delays of even a few minutes can make the difference between life and death sometimes.

It’s hard to argue with that. If Hatzalah saves lives, that’s the end of the conversation for me. But even though I support it under these conditions it still bothers me because it gives the appearance of not trusting the system already in place. And worse it has the potential for real Chilul HaShem if it is seen as catering only to Jews. And if there is ever an accident between one of these vehicles and a innocent bystander… not good!

However - if I understand correctly - this is not the case. Hatzalah comes to the aid of non Jews as well as Jews if called upon in the neighborhoods they serve. My guess is that Hatzalah also works hand in hand with city’s existing emergency responders and actually acts as an aid to them. So Hatzalah may actually be a Kiddush HaShem.

I don’t really have an issue with Hatzalah if that’s true. But I am still concerned that when a speeding vehicle with Hebrew letters comes screaming through a neighborhood, there is potential for real danger as well as being perceived as ‘those Jews only caring about themsleves.’

In those cities where emergency response time is quick, Hatzalah would give the negative impressions I fear without any real benefit. I would therefore oppose a fleet of Hatzalah trauma units here in Chicago. The response time for emergency vehicles here is very fast. There is no need to have our own fleet.

I would add that I have no problem with Frum Jews knowing how to save lives via the kinds of courses EMTs take. Chicago has initiated such a program.

But Shomrim is a different situation. I am far less inclined to see them in a positive light for a number of reasons. First of all, to the best of my knowledge they are unarmed. 2nd of all, they are untrained – at least as compared to the police. And 3rd - they are in a position to be seen as Jewish vigilantes not unlike the ‘Guardian Angles’. The chances for Chilul HaShem are greatly increased.

Do they save lives? I don’t know. Perhaps their mere presence in certain Jewish but neighborhoods acts as a deterrent. If that's all they were. I'd be fine with it. But they are more than about deterrence. They are about doing police work.

I have to wonder if they are any more effective than the police. Are they quicker to respond? Are they equipped and trained to deal with a suspect when they encounter him? Is there tension between the police and the Shomrim? Apparently there is. From the Jewish Week.

Those tensions became more apparent in recent days as sources in the community and the NYPD expressed frustration with how the Shomrim (Hebrew for “guardians”) operate – however well intentioned – with little accountability, sometimes hindering the work of the police.

Part of the problem is that since Shomrim are religious Jews they are more trusted than the police. They therefore become the ‘go to’ people when a member of their community gets into trouble. And sometimes that can lead to tragedy too. Especially if they do not themselves call the police.

It was the Shomrim that were contacted by his mother when Leiby went missing. While their immediate jump into action was praised by the police commissioner...

An NYPD official with experience in the Orthodox community told The Jewish Week it was “unconscionable” for the Brooklyn South Shomrim (which covers Borough Park) to have not called the police immediately upon learning of young Leiby going missing.

Asserting that the Shomrim members tend to “play cops” and take matters into their own hands, he called on the community to “ask the questions that need to be asked and answered” about how these groups operate.

“Who are they accountable to?” the official asked, adding that “we will never know” if the Shomrim, who keep their own files on neighborhood figures suspected of foul play, had prior information on the alleged killer. (Those files are not shared with the police.)

Two and a half hours went by before the police were contacted by these Shomrim. There is no way of knowing whether it would have made any difference. But it is more than troubling to think that it just might have.

That said, I don’t know that I would disband this group. But I would most certainly rein them in and make sure that they stop playing cops. I would insist that they call the police immediately upon any call for help they receive. I would also forbid any physical contact between a suspect and the Shomrim except in circumstances where it was self defense or to protect imminent violence to an innocent victim. Community policing is a good idea if done right. But the minute they turn into vigilantes the potential for harm to themselves and others increases and so does the potential for Chilul HaShem.

While many of these Shomrim are well intentioned and do work very hard at what they do, it can easily become a power trip for them. And nothing corrupts more than power. They can easily think of themselves as equal to or better than the police and give themselves license to act like them. And since they do not have to answer to anyone but themselves, they may just cut a corner or two and break the law – all with the best of intentions.

The fact that they did not report a missing child to the police may just be a function of their sense of power and an exaggerated sense of efficacy. ‘We don’t need the police!’ ‘We got this!’ ‘It all under control.’ And that can spell trouble.

If Shomrim are going to work as a positive force in the Jewish community, they have to work as civilians and not as some sort of faux police force or vigilantes. They have follow rules and work with the police department. Not against them. To ignore them is to work against them. To withhold information is to work against them. To not call them immediately is to work against them.

As I said there is no way of knowing whether a closer relationship with the police would have made any difference in Leiby’s case. But it certainly would not have hurt.

Updated at 7:18pm CDT