Hasidic Patrol Group Faces Questions After a Crown Heights …

Posted By on May 30, 2019

Police officials and the Shomrim members' own accounts of Thursday's encounter indicated that the group violated police guidelines that forbid civilian patrol groups to chase down possible crime suspects.

The Police Department's Community Affairs Bureau works with hundreds of groups that use unarmed citizens to patrol their neighborhoods, parks and apartment buildings. In most groups, the civilian patrol members are provided with windbreakers and walkie-talkies and are urged to act only as the "eyes and ears" of the department by reporting crime to the police, according to a police memorandum.

Police officials say the civilian patrol members are not permitted to conduct their own investigations or track down suspects.

Mayor Giuliani yesterday praised the police officers who made the original arrests and later quelled the demonstrations, and said officials would keep a closer watch on the Shomrim's patrols.

"They will be called in by the Commissioner and he will discuss with each one of them what they are allowed to do, what they are not allowed to do, to make sure they know what the rules are and they don't exceed it," Mr. Giuliani said.

Rabbi Israel Shemtov, the founder of Shomrim, did not return repeated calls for comment yesterday. But one Shomrim member said the group was simply practicing self-defense after the child's uncle grabbed a member by the neck.

Mordechai Friedman, president of the Brooklyn-based American Board of Rabbis, said several protesters had videotaped police officers in riot gear kicking protesters and beating them with nightsticks. "No one has the right to arrest someone for protesting," Rabbi Friedman said.

But several community leaders criticized the group's actions. Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chairman of Community Board 9, denounced "the disrespect and illegal conduct against members of the law enforcement community."

Representative Major Owens said the incident was troubling, but urged black residents not to seek retribution. "It's wrong if men took the law into their own hands and beat somebody," said Mr. Owens, who is black. "But let us not try and start a war between two groups because some individuals got out of hand."

Rabbi Shemtov received widespread attention in 1993 when he rushed to the aid of a black woman who had been shot on the street in Crown Heights, putting her in his car and taking her to the hospital.

But he has also often been seen by black residents as an overzealous defender of his turf. He has been arrested several times during neighborhood confrontations and was convicted for "obstructing government administration" after an altercation with the police in 1983.

The incident on Thursday began about 9 P.M., when the Shomrim members approached 8-year-old Eliott Allen, who is black, because they mistakenly suspected him of stealing a Hasidic child's bike three hours earlier. The Shomrim members did not call the police, who in fact had already arrested two suspects in the bike theft at 6 P.M.

When the boy's uncle, Kenneth Hartley, saw the boy being detained, he ran to his aid, the police said. Two detectives from the 75th Precinct happened to be driving by as the fracas escalated and arrested two Shomrim members, Ely Ragatsky, 20, and Josef Prus, 39, who were charged with beating Mr. Hartley in the head with a radio.

Mr. Hartley, 36, was taken to Kingsbrook Jewish Hospital, where he received seven stitches to close the wound on his head.

But Mr. Ragatsky's father, Yakov, said the Shomrim members were acting in self-defense because Mr. Hartley had placed Ely Ragatsky in a choke hold. "I'm surprised they didn't arrest the black guy," Mr. Ragatsky said, referring to Mr. Hartley.

The boy said yesterday that he never took anyone's bicycle and that a group of children had tried to steal his bike shortly before the Shomrim patrol members arrived.

"They didn't steal my bike, but they tried to," he said.

Within a half hour of the arrests, several Orthodox Jews had gathered at the precinct to demand release of the two suspects, and the police called a level one mobilization, the first wave of reinforcements needed to handle a street disturbance.

By midnight, the crowd outside the 71st Precinct station house had grown to 150 people, then broke into small groups, which began dashing through the neighborhood chanting "Jewish blood isn't cheap!"

Nine protesters were arrested, two on rioting charges and seven on disorderly conduct charges, a police spokeswoman, Debra Kearns, said. Three police officers suffered minor injuries in the violence.

On the streets of Crown Heights yesterday, most residents seemed puzzled by the outbreak and hoped the neighborhood would not descend into the sort of racially charged street violence that raged for three days in the summer of 1991. That conflict, in which a Hasidic scholar from Australia was attack by a mob of black youths and stabbed to death, began when a 7-year-old black child was killed by an automobile traveling in a Hasidic motorcade.

Annie Boyd, who is black, said she had lived on an overwhelmingly white block of Montgomery Street for 30 years and felt that relations between the races are improving. "People here are very good neighbors," she said.

But others said there was lingering racial mistrust and had deeply divided opinions about the Shomrim's effect on the community.

Many Hasidic residents said that they appreciated the group's efforts to deter crime and that the Shomrim offered more patrol strength and quicker response time than the police. "There's only so much the police can do, so they help with all the street crime," said Moishe Bleich, 19, a rabbinical student.

For years, the police have sought to organize multiracial patrol groups, which exist in other neighborhoods such as Borough Park and Williamsburg, to defuse any racial tension. But the Shomrim's founder, Rabbi Shemtov, repeatedly resisted any police oversight, according to department officials.

To some black residents, the Shomrim's racial make-up and its members' attitudes are a source of constant tension.

"It's like they are always trying to make you fell unwanted," said Michael Barrington, 22, who is black. Mr. Barrington said he had twice been stopped by Shomrim members for no reason other than "they want you to feel like they're always looking over you."

A picture caption yesterday, with the continuation of an article about an incident involving a Hasidic patrol group, misidentified one of the men shown discussing the incident in some copies. He is Rabbi Israel Shemtov, not Israel Shmira.

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