Saturday, May 14, 2016

Meet the Shomrim—The Hasidic Volunteer ‘Cops’ Who Answer To Nobody 

NYPD Inspector Michael Ameri shot himself Friday in a Department car hours after the FBI reportedly questioned him for a second time about a series of alleged payoffs made by members of New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community—including several big donors to Mayor Bill de Blasio—to high-ranking officials in the NYPD.

That probe has focused on lurid reports of diamonds for top cops’ wives and hookers for those cops on free flights to Vegas, but it’s also put a spotlight on a longstanding nexus of shady dealings between New York City politicians, including the mayor, the NYPD, and the Jewish community’s own “volunteer” police.

A few months before killing himself, Ameri cut ties with one such pretend police officer, Alex “Shaya” Lichtenstein, the New York Post reported. Last month, Lichtenstein was arrested and charged with offering thousands of dollars in cash bribes to cops in the department’s gun licensing bureau in exchange for very tough to obtain in New York City gun permits.

Lichtenstein reportedly bragged that he had procured them for 150 friends and associates, charging $18,000 a pop and paying a third of that to his police connections. According to prosecutors, the scheme had enabled a man with a prior criminal history that included four domestic violence complaints and  “a threat against someone’s life” to obtain a gun.

In the criminal complaint, filed in Manhattan federal court, Lichtenstein was identified as a member of Borough Park’s private, all male, unarmed volunteer security patrol, known as the Shomrim (Hebrew for “guards” or “watchers”).

The complaint did not identify any of Lichtenstein’s alleged customers, however, but sources knowledgeable about the Shomrim are skeptical that he was obtaining permits on behalf of, or for, the Shomrim as an organization. Instead, they argue, it is more plausible that Lichtenstein was operating as a freelancer—albeit one who likely exploited police connections nurtured during his time as a member of the group.

After all, it is not exactly a secret that the Shomrim—along with others from the ultra-Orthodox community who serve as unpaid liaisons to various city and state law enforcement agencies–maintain close relations with members of the NYPD, and particularly those who serve in their local precincts.
For example, news sites and Twitter accounts that play to an ultra-Orthodox audience are littered with pictures of Shomrim hobnobbing with high-ranking police officers at pre-holiday “briefings,” honoring them with “appreciation” awards at community breakfasts or charity dinners, and even engaging in friendly competition at an annual summer softball game.

But Lichtenstein aside, it would be a mistake to conclude that for the Shomrim at least these relationships are motivated by the prospect of personal financial gain or status concerns, even though there’s no doubt that having an “in” with the cops can boost one’s standing in the community. Instead, access and influence are the means of achieving a more important communal goal: the freedom to operate as the de facto police force of their communities, but with backup from the cops in the most dangerous situations.

In some sense, it is almost as if the Shomrim view the NYPD as their auxiliary police.


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