On the evening of April 14, a 20-year-old black man named Andrew Charles was attacked with pepper spray and then beaten by a pair of Hasidic assailants in his Crown Heights neighborhood. The attackers escaped in a GMC Envoy, and although Charles didn’t catch the plate number, a witness did. Police traced its registration to another neighborhood resident, Menachem Ezagui, who police say is a member of a local volunteer security-patrol group called the Crown Heights Shmira. He was picked up by police, but when the victim couldn’t identify him in a lineup, he was released. The investigation remains open, and the Shmira isn’t helping.
The Shmira—the name means “to watch” or “to protect” in Hebrew—has a contentious history in the neighborhood. Founded in 1968, its original membership was conspicuously multiethnic. Today the Shmira’s 100 or so members are all Jewish. They monitor the neighborhood from a police-style patrol car. “We’ve had more than a dozen Jewish men in their twenties and thirties beaten and attacked viciously in the last year,” claims Yossi Stern, the group’s longtime leader, who says the police are more concerned about keeping crime stats down than responding. But some see the Shmira as a problem, not a solution. “They’re not supervised or properly trained,” says City Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents the area. Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes has called the organization “renegade.” The anonymous blog Who Is Shmira?, which was launched after the attack, has mocked the organization’s leaders and says the group victimizes Crown Heights. “Community patrols usually cooperate with their local precinct,” says NYPD assistant chief Michael Collins. “But unfortunately this group has chosen not to.”
Stern says his members are simply protecting their community. “We’re talking cracked skulls, broken arms, missing teeth,” he says. “Not one time was there a strong, faithful effort [to find the perpetrators] like the police are doing now with this black kid.” Stern gives an example from earlier this year. “A Jewish boy walking in the neighborhood got his head ripped wide open,” he says. “The black guy was pointed out, and I walked up to him and said, ‘My name is Yossi Stern, and I’m with the Crown Heights Shmira.’ He was bigger than me, and intimidating. He said, ‘Get out of my face.’ I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ The cops came and put him in handcuffs.” The Police Department, however, lost the report, Stern claims—just one of dozens of complaints that he charges have been misplaced as part of a citywide effort to bury crime stats. (The NYPD wouldn’t address this charge.)
“We don’t carry guns,” Stern says. “No bats, no sticks, no pepper spray. We’re husbands, we’re brothers. We’re a passive patrol, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Authorities and locals still suspect Shmira members were involved with the Charles beating, and Hynes convened a grand jury late last month. “The police and Hynes don’t have all the facts,” says Stern. “If they have all the facts, why aren’t they bringing them forward?”