District 48: Who Watches the Watchman?

With a certain Florida neighborhood watch group so much in the news, New Yorkers might be puzzled to note that we have such groups operating here as well.  And not only within gated communities either, and not necessarily privately funded.  So let’s take a look at New York City’s own paramilitary, quasi-religious and City Council funded neighborhood watch groups, the founder of one of which is currently a leading candidate for City Council.

Chaim Deutsch, founder of the Flatbush Shomrim, (Hebrew for “watchers”) is hoping to succeed his boss Council Member Michael Nelson in the 48th CD, straddling Ocean Avenue and crossing Sheepshead Bay to encompass Brighton and Manhattan Beach.  The Flatbush Shomrim, founded in 1991 in the immediate wake of the Crown Heights riots, is staffed primarily by Orthodox Jewish men (typically “married or divorced”) who patrol the neighborhood and ostensibly serve strictly as the “eyes and ears” for the police.  There are a number of these Jewish shomrim groups throughout Brooklyn, and they operate in loose conjunction with each other.

The problem is that the shomrim, as neighborhood watchmen everywhere seem to do, sometimes get carried away with the grandeur of their own self-appointed authority.  In 2011, for example, when Leiby Kletzky disappeared on his way home, his parents notified not the NYPD, but the local shomrim organization, the Brooklyn South Shomrim, which called upon the Flatbush Shomrim to help look for the child.  Neither group contacted the police, although the boy’s father eventually did.  Unfortunately the amateur detectives wasted precious time examining security footage and his abductor killed the boy.

The Flatbush Shomrim receives public funding, in substantial amounts.  The 2014 budget earmarks $63,500 for the group in discretionary funding, from Council Members Michael Nelson, Lew Fidler, Jumaane Williams, and David Greenfield, in descending order of amounts given.  The Flatbush Shomrim also possesses a $250,000 command and control van, modeled on and decorated like an NYPD vehicle, which was paid for by Council funding in 2009.  The group operates in close conjunction with the local precinct, and acts much like a quasi-auxiliary force, with special jackets and flashing lights on their vehicles.

Chaim Deutsch is a Council employee, working as “chief of operations” for CM Michael Nelson.  Because his boss provides so much funding to the Flatbush Shomrim, Deutsch is no longer listed as an officer of the organization in its IRS documents.  But he is still closely associated with the group, and is frequently mentioned as its “leader.” 

Deutsch gained a great deal of visibility during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when he participated in salvage and clean-up of Manhattan Beach and other neighborhoods.  He became popularly identified with a chainsaw he carried around, blitzing fallen trees until the city ordered him to stop.  He supposedly even “rescued” CM Nelson from drowning.  His legitimate indefatigability and seemingly good works post-storm have raised his standing in the community, and when he announced his bid for the Council he shocked everyone with the speed of his fundraising, essentially maxing out his contributions in less than a month.  As the leading non-Russian in the field, Deutsch has quickly become the odds-on favorite for the nomination, and also has support from the growing Muslim minority population in the district, with whom Deutsch has built a coalition through his years of public safety work in the area.

City Council Watch is not endorsing or gainsaying Chaim Deutsch.  But we definitely think it is weird that the city, which already has a police force larger than many national armies, funds private security groups composed exclusively of Orthodox Jews to patrol public streets.  As Michael Lesher, a prominent Orthodox critic of the shomrim puts it, “If the Nation of Islam were to set up a private force of Muslims, ostensibly to scour Harlem for ‘bias crimes,’ would City Council members be heaping public money into its coffers?”

Probably not.  But that’s New York!