Outraged by a continuing series of violent attacks against Jews in Crown Heights, hundreds of protestors from the Chabad-Lubavitch community rallied last Friday in the Brooklyn neighborhood outside the local police precinct calling for a greater police presence and the ouster of the precinct commander.
Three days later, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly visited the neighborhood and held an impromptu meeting with community leaders. The next day, the leaders reported a heavier police presence, including two mobile observation towers and three command posts, and a chasidic Web site blog reported that the commander, Deputy Inspector Frank Vega of the 71st Precinct, was being transferred.
The report was denied by the NYPD’s top spokesman.
Crown Heights leaders on Tuesday also met with Deputy Mayor Edward Skyler to discuss their concerns.
The protests followed the attack on 16-year-old Alon Sherman early Friday morning, which left him unconscious. He was robbed of his bicycle and other possessions.
That attack was followed by another incident Sunday. Witnesses said three young black men threw rocks and shouted anti-Semitic slurs at Jewish pedestrians outside a synagogue on Eastern Parkway. Last week, a school bus full of children from a chasidic school was pelted with rocks thrown by an estimated 10 youths on President Street. (On Thursday, sources said two youths were arrested in the attack on Sherman.)
All this takes place against the backdrop of a police manhunt for assailants in the April 14 assault on a black college student in which the assailants are said to be volunteers in a chasidic patrol group. District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has convened an investigative grand jury to probe that incident, and police identified Yitzchak Shuhat, 25, an emergency medical technician, volunteer patrolman and former NYPD auxiliary officer, as someone wanted for questioning.
“This is creating outrage and disgust among the Jewish community,” said Yossie Stern, chairman of the Shmira Patrol, which was implicated by Hynes in the incident. “There have been close to 40 beatings [of Jews] in the past and not one single arrest. People are very angry at the police department and shocked that in the end, reaction to this one isolated incident tells the Jewish community that they are not acting fairly.”
Tensions are also reportedly building between Shmira and its rival, the Shomrim patrol group, from which it separated more than a decade ago. Anonymous bloggers continue to launch personal attacks against Stern and other members by name, accusing them of the halachic transgression of mesirah, turning a Jew over to secular authorities, in an unrelated incident last year.
During Kelly’s visit to Crown Heights Monday night he told chasidic leaders that the neighborhood is safer than it has been in 20 years. In a video posted on a Chabad Web site, Kelly is seen arguing that point with a local rabbi, Yosi Jacobson. In that argument Kelly seems to allude to Shmira, whose members were referred to by Hynes as “renegades” whose work is unsanctioned by the community and the police.
“We need calm heads, cool heads,” says Kelly in the footage. “We don’t want people irrationally causing problems.”
Black and Jewish elected officials and community leaders were to gather on Thursday to discuss obtaining funding to post more video surveillance equipment on streets where attacks have taken place , in order to help deter crime and identify culprits.
“We need to restore confidence and security on the streets,” said Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents Crown Heights. “As an elected official I’m going to help restore that.”
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who does not represent Crown Heights, said Tuesday that he has spent many hours in the community to assess the situation because of his own concern and what he described as a “leadership vacuum” in the community. He says he was asked to get involved.
“One of the reasons the authorities get away with not doing their job is because [the community is] divided,” Hikind said, describing reports from crime victims that police lost paperwork related to their cases. “I was shocked to hear what I was hearing.’
Hikind said he believed Mayor Michael Bloomberg should visit the area. “It would improve so much the sense that someone cares,” said Hikind. The assemblyman, who recently formed an alliance of black and Jewish elected officials to address common concerns, said he would convene that group for Thursday’s press conference.
Following the meeting with Skyler on Tuesday, Hanina Sperlin, vice president of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, said, “They gave me a very good assurance that we are going to see a big difference. When I got home there were about 100 additional policemen. My only question is if they will still be there in a week.”
Sperlin said there were rumors in the community that Vega would be replaced, saying “He is a nice guy, I have a good relationship with him, but it’s time for new leadership.”
But Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the top NYPD spokesman, said on Tuesday that Vega “is the commanding officer of the precinct. Period.”
He did not respond to a request for permission to interview Vega.
Browne emphasized that overall crime in the 71st Precinct was down 12 percent so far this year compared to the same period last year. “That’s in all categories,” he said.
But Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, chairman of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights, said in reply: “Tell that to the people who are victims, who have had buckets of tar thrown at them and names shouted at them. Let them look at the statistics within the Jewish community and then say that in public and let’s see the reaction.
“At this rate every thug in town will be emboldened to attack because it seems these incidents are going on unabated.”