June 6, 2003

Policing the Hasidim


Did you hear the one about the guy who goes to shul on Shavuot and eats in a sukkah on Sukkot but doesn't fast on Yom Kippur? Here's a hint: He carries a gun, and he's not Jewish.

If you've ever run into trouble with the law in Boro Park, Brooklyn, you may have met him. He's the commanding officer of the 66th precinct in New York City, and you'd better stay out of his way-unless you're innocent, of course.

Deputy Inspector Stephen G. McAllister works the Boro Park police beat, and he says it's a job unlike any other he's had in the New York Police Department. In a city with more than a million Jews, McAllister is the police chief in the most densely populated Jewish neighborhood in America. While there are plenty of hasidim elsewhere in Brooklyn, no other neighborhood in the city is as uniformly Jewish as the hasidic enclave of Boro Park. And if the officers of the 66 are to be believed, in no other neighborhood do the police enjoy as positive a relationship with the people they protect as do the police in Boro Park.

"They want me to participate in all their events," McAllister, who is the son of Irish immigrants, said. "I've gotten blessings from the grand rabbis. I ate in all their houses on Passover. If I eat any more matzo I'm going to burst. We had a great time on Purim. I danced in Bobov," he said, referring to the gigantic yeshiva of the neighborhood's most populous hasidic sect. "I find it all very interesting."

Even for most New York Jews, Boro Park is alien territory. The lingua franca is a mix of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew; the stores that line the streets have 1950s-era billboards and sell such specialty items as wigs, hats, chulent, and Torah tapes; the local travel agencies specialize in El Al flights, and there's a yeshiva on nearly every block. It's not that different from Jerusalem's Mea Shearim Street, 6,000 miles away. The difference in America is that streets stay open to traffic on Shabbat, promiscuously dressed women are able to walk the streets free of harassment, and the hasidim seem to get along well with police.

"I think relations have been at an all-time high for the last two or so years," said Isaac "Itchy" Heschel, a clergy liaison for the NYPD and a lifetime resident of Boro Park. "The chief of the department, Joe Espesito, is a former commander of the 66. I think they handpick the commanding officers they send to the more sensitive commands, and we've done extremely well. They're very sensitive to our needs. They're continually looking out for the community in every respect, from counter-terrorism to working Torah processions."

Not all of Boro Park is Jewish. Just a few blocks from 13th Avenue, the heart of Jewish Brooklyn, Hebrew signs on storefronts give way to Chinese lettering, the smell of Asian food hangs in the air, and the fish of choice in the marketplace is eel, not gefilte. The 66th precinct covers roughly 3.5 square miles and encompasses 200,000 people, including a sizeable Muslim community comprised mostly of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, a few thousand Italian families, some Latinos, and small number of African-Americans.

Raised in a Catholic home in suburban Long Island, Stephen Papp, a young cop who has spent all of his five years on the force in the 66th precinct, said the ethnically diverse population of the precinct serves as his introduction to the world. "Everything is in this precinct," Papp said. "It's hard to get used to. Every other week there's something different going on. This is a pretty sensitive precinct when it comes to religion. When you go into a synagogue you have to make sure you show respect. We you go into a mosque, you take off your shoes."

McAllister said the cops who come to work at the 66 usually spend their first week undergoing diversity training. Community liaisons and clergymen are invited down to the police station to explain the unique concerns and circumstances of their communities, and cops learn the basics of life in Boro Park.

After a few months on the job, the Boro Park police usually learn more about Judaism than most Jews do in Hebrew school. McAllister, who knows far more than a good Shabbos goy needs to know about Jewish holidays and ritual, even has his own yarmulke with his name on it. He also keeps a steel star of david and cross in his office-fashioned from the collapsed steel beams found in the rubble of the World Trade Center-a cap from the Israeli police, and a photograph of himself with former prime minister Ehud Barak. A hasidic newspaper, the weekly Hamodia, sits in his "in" box.

McAllister's predecessor, Inspector Robert Napolitano, spent two years as precinct commander in Boro Park before transferring to an assignment in Queens. As commander of the 66, Napolitano said he got a unique insider's look at Jewish life.

"Boro Park is ground zero for Judaism in the western hemisphere," Napolitano said. "I know more about being Jewish than any of the Jews I ever knew growing up in Long Island. You can't tell me that all nine days of Sukkot are holy days, because I know now: There's two at the beginning and two at the end. I know all about Judaism."

His successor, McAllister, grew up in Brooklyn, but it wasn't until he came to Boro Park that he got a window into the way fervently Orthodox Jews conduct their daily lives, he said. "I'm still getting to know the special nuances of their religious observances," said McAllister, who has been in his post for almost a year. Before taking over command of the 66, McAllister worked in the NYPD's special narcotics unit, on the vice squad, and in the Technical Assistance Reconnaissance Unit, the police's surveillance force. Now that he's moved out of the back of unmarked vans filled with wiretap equipment, McAllister said he is enjoying his time working in a community.

"I'm very comfortable here," he said. "I'm a Brooklyn boy, and it's nice to come back to Brooklyn. And dealing with the hasidic community has been very pleasurable."

There are a few unique circumstances policing Boro Park. For example, if a religiously observant Jew is arrested before sundown on Friday, officers take special pains to be sensitive to the suspect's special Sabbath-observant needs. If there is enough time, the suspect is rushed to central booking in Manhattan to be processed and released or detained before the start of Shabbat. If there is not enough time, the suspect will be held in the local jail cell in the Boro Park precinct for the duration of the Sabbath before being taken to Manhattan to be formally arraigned. In deference to prisoners' wishes to maintain observance of Jewish dietary laws even while incarcerated, friends or family are permitted to deliver kosher food to suspects being held in the local jail. Still, not that many hasidic prisoners pass through the 66; according to police officials, they are a paragon of cooperation and lawfulness.

Napolitano, the affable Italian-American police inspector who used to command the 66, said he believed American Jews' attitudes toward police have been shaped by a contrast with centuries of Jewish history. New York. In the old country, Jews routinely were singled out as scapegoats by thuggishly anti-Semitic police officials who abused their power to capitalize on public animosity toward the Jews; in New York, he said, Jews are proud to enjoy a positive relationship with the police. "It's an honor for Jews to be friends with the police because historically it was police who killed them," Napolitano said.

For their part, officers at the 66 say they feel appreciated by Jewish community members in their precinct. On Sept. 11, residents flooded the precinct office with donated food, flashlights, water and other supplies for the beleaguered officers. For weeks afterward, Jewish families poured into the precinct to pay their respects to policemen who lost their lives at the World Trade Center.

"In so many parts of the city it's an adversarial relationship with the police, but not here," McAllister said. "We had zero civilian complaints in the first quarter of this year. I've worked all over the city, and you don't get that a lot. Here people come up to you and the street and thank you."

Things have changed a bit at the 66 since that fateful day in September 2001. Security is tighter than ever around the Jewish holidays and at houses of worship, there are occasional vehicle checkpoints at the precinct's perimeters, and police keep a close eye on possible soft targets in the neighborhood, such as Maimonides hospital. When the war in Iraq began, police set up temporary headquarters at the hospital in case of any terrorist attacks.

At most times during the year, there are about 175 officers under command at the 66. A handful are Jewish, and two are Sabbath-observers.

Detective Vincent Galeno has been a cop in Boro Park for 19 years. A somber-faced man with a strong build, Galeno looks like a typical Brookly tough guy. But when he opens his mouth, Galeno sounds more like a sweetheart and a man who is happy with his job.

"They all know me and welcome me here," he said, explaining that his job is made easier by the hasidic community's culture of law and order. Often, Galeno said, the community polices itself. "They take care of their own," he said. "If they got a dispute between themselves, they will go to a rabbinical court. And only if one guy doesn't follow the rabbinical ruling, or if it's a criminal matter, will we get involved."

Most of the criminal activity in Boro Park involves burglaries and auto theft. There is little domestic violence in town, and rapes and murders are very rare. Most of the time, the police simply ride around or walk the streets, making sure they're visible to passersby.

"We call that omnipresence," explained officer Papp. On one recent rainy afternoon, Papp and his partner cruised through the neighborhood in their squad car, monitoring their radio and scouting for perps. The only calls they received were to the scene of a minor automobile accident and a false alarm at a private residence. "It's a nice area," Papp observed. "It's safer for us when it's quiet, which makes it safer for them."

There are a few unique crime issues to combat in heavily Jewish neighborhoods like Boro Park. For one thing, burglars who know about Shabbat restrictions often take advantage of the opportunities Sabbath observance affords them, like breaking into cars or homes at times when they know the owners won't be around. Police officials say the precinct successfully battles such subterfuge, though they would not disclose very many specifics. Sometimes, police helicopters fly low over the neighborhood on Shabbat and holidays to scare away potential bandits. Whatever the police are doing, it must be working: Crime is down 70 percent over the last decade in the 66th precinct, and about 30 percent so far this year compared with last year.

One of the primary reasons crime is down may have less to do with the police than with volunteer community patrols, one of the many signs of the cozy relationship between police and Jews in Boro Park. There are about 60 civilian volunteers in the Brooklyn South Safety Patrol, also known as the Shomrim (not affiliated with the Shomrim Society, a nationwide association for Jewish law-enforcement officers)-or guardians, in Hebrew. The volunteers do not have the authority to make arrests, but they carry police radios and are often the first point of contact for community members who want to report a crime or suspicious activity, particularly those more comfortable in their native Yiddish than in English.

"I look at the Shomrim like they're the NYPD," McAllister said. "I have extra 60 sets of eyes and ears on the street."

Volunteers helped police set up security cameras in some neighborhood locations, and the group's members are in constant contact with police about the goings-on in their sectors of the community. Because of their omnipresence, patrol members often go to court to offer eyewitness or expert testimony in criminal cases. And they do it all for free-a rarity in New York.

"The 66 is a role model for other communities and police agencies to learn what community policing is," Heschel, one of many community liaisons, said.

"Boro Park is like its own little world," offered officer Papp, driving by the yeshivas along 13th Avenue. "You have to learn a lot, but it's a good place to be a cop."

Shomrim Stand Guard

Thirty years ago, Sabbath-observant Jews who wanted to become New York City police officers faced an array of obstacles, ranging from having to find ways to avoid Saturday work shifts to explaining the peculiarities of disruptive Jewish observances to commanding officers. And before they could even become cops, Jewish police wannabees faced a major hurdle that, for most, extinguished their law-enforcement prospects entirely: Recruiting tests generally were administered on Saturdays.

But times have changed, thanks in large part to the Shomrim Society, the Jewish policemen's association in New York.

Back in the 1970s, the Shomrim Society was key to opening up the police department to Sabbath-observant recruits, helping change department protocol to allow for reasonable accommodation of Sabbath observance, beginning with alternate scheduling times for the NYPD recruiting exam. Today, the police force in the city that for more than three decades has suspended alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules for all major Jewish holidays has more than a few Sabbath-observant police officers, and the New York Shomrim Society has swelled to more than 2,000 members, according to the executive vice-president of national Shomrim, Louis Weiser, who is also a past president of New York Shomrim and the current president of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Civil Service. Shomrim is Hebrew for guardians.

"The Shomrim ran recruitment drives to bring Jewish youth into the department, and we helped open doors for the Orthodox to join the police department," Weiser said. "I would say that there are probably at least 20 to 40 Sabbath-observant police officers in the NYPD today."

The NYPD's Shomrim Society is about 78 years old and has been affiliated with national Shomrim since its founding, in 1954. When new recruits become police officers, the Shomrim is one of a variety of religious organizations permitted to approach new police officers for membership. "If you're Jewish and you're a cop, you join the Shomrim," Weiser said.

Aside from running special programs and occasional religious services, the society provides its members-who include active and retired officers-with two important long-term benefits: cemetery plots and scholarship money. New York Shomrim has two significantly sized cemeteries for its members and the society maintains scholarship funds for children and grandchildren of members. The society also holds occasional meetings and celebrations, including a well-attended annual breakfast every autumn.

The group also runs kosher picnics, Friday night dinners with Jewish cops from other police departments, distributes food to needy Jews before Passover and assists police officers with any Jewish services they might need.

Nationally, the Shomrim includes thousands of members in nearly every state in the country. In some smaller cities, counties and states, Jewish fire fighters, corrections officers and court officers are eligible for membership. Because New York has such a large population of Jewish civil servants, each group has its own Jewish association. Jewish fire fighters may join Ner Tamid (Hebrew for eternal flame) and Jewish corrections officers may join the Macabees.

Community patrols in Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn that use the name shomrim (ITAL.) are not affiliated with the New York or national Shomrim Society, and its members are civilian volunteers, not professional police officers.