It’s a wet Tuesday night in Stamford Hill and I’m on an impromptu stakeout with two Orthodox Jewish men wearing police-issue stab vests.
Shulem Stern’s roomy people carrier has three child seats in the back to accommodate his large young family. But tonight – like almost every night of the week for Shulem and his partner Michael Scher – it’s our undercover surveillance vehicle as we cruise around north London looking for any prospective criminals.
I lower the window to get a better look at the “IC1 male” spotted acting suspiciously around Clapton Common. We’ve killed the engine and the lights, and we all watch in silence as the suspect wanders back and forth in the rain. He walks off after a few minutes and Michael speaks into his crackling two-way radio: “Male no longer considered a threat, let’s conclude.” Three similar vans I hadn’t noticed peel off in different directions, their Orthodox drivers nodding to my co-passengers as they pass.
Shulem and Michael are members of Stamford Hill Shomrim (Hebrew for “guards”), a Jewish neighbourhood patrol group set up to assist the London Metropolitan Police (MPS) in reducing crime. It’s one of four Shomrim groups in the UK (there’s one in Golders Green and two in the Manchester area, plus a number in various US cities), but this is the largest.
The 22 volunteers are on call 24 hours a day and spend three to four hours each day driving, walking or cycling the streets of Clapton, Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill and South Tottenham in search of any crimes being committed. The only restriction to the patrol is once a week duringShabbat, a period of roughly 25 hours that entails refraining from any work activities, i.e. using a mobile phone or driving a car. “We’re like a very proactive neighbourhood watch,” says Shulem once we’re back on the road.
Since it was founded in 2008, Stamford Hill Shomrim has taken more than 20,000 calls to its hotline from local people, mostly within the Orthodox Jewish community, reporting break-ins, thefts, muggings and other crimes. The group responds to every single call, arriving on the scene before identifying, pursuing or detaining the suspect and waiting for the Met to arrive and make an arrest.
“People in this part of London call us before the police in an emergency,” Shulem says of their hotline number, which receives between 11 to 15 calls a day. “People know they get an instant response from Shomrim, and in most cases we’ll be there way before the police because we’re so local – usually in around 40 seconds, whereas the police have their fastest response target at around 15 minutes.”
The speedy response time clearly works in their favour; Shomrim hands over an average of three to five suspects a week to the police, and between April of 2012 and April of 2013 has directly assisted police with the arrests of 197 suspected criminals.
The patrols are supported by Hatzola, an ambulance service run by Jewish volunteers with emergency medical technician training. “Our ambulance service is much faster as well,” claims Shulem. “They get to the scene of an incident in three minutes. The London Ambulance target is eight minutes.”
Though I’m initially sceptical of these speeds, I witness them first-hand soon after we’ve abandoned our Clapton Common post. At around 10PM a Shomrim patrolman spots a woman lying in the middle of busy traffic on Stamford Hill Broadway. Shulem gets us there in less than a minute. When we arrive, two Shomrim members are giving first aid to the woman in the street – a (non-Jewish) pedestrian knocked down by a hit and run driver – while another tapes off the area. Two more Shomrim members are taking contact details of witnesses to pass on to police.
Three minutes later, a Hatzola ambulance arrives and prepares to take the woman to hospital. Three minutes after that, the police arrive.
“It’s no secret that the police are stretched and officers are tied up with paperwork instead of being able to patrol the streets,” says Shulem. “Even before the cuts, Shomrim has been a simple addition to the police. We have been brought up locally, live locally, work locally and drive up and down these streets every day. We know the regular faces – the goodies and the baddies.”
With 22 patrolmen, the organisation has almost as many people on the ground in the area at any one time as the Met, who typically have between 24 to 30 officers on the response team for the whole borough. Shomrim’s close links to the community also mean they can utilise resources, such as private CCTV, that take the police much longer to access.
However, Shomrim are careful to state that they are “not an alternative” to the cops, and are keen to tell me about the good working relationship they have with local police stations. Members receive informal ongoing training at Stoke Newington Police Station and are kept updated about new, targeted operations in the area.
Local police officers are in contact with Shomrim on a nightly basis and intelligence is regularly passed between the two organisations. “I have a direct line to the robbery squad on my mobile,” says Michael, adding that corresponding with 999 operatives while pursuing a burglary suspect is often slow work.
The Met, for their part, have openly praised the organisation; in March, Stephen Greenhalgh, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, said: “I applaud the work of Shomrim in helping the police to keep neighbourhoods safe.” But this hasn’t always been the case. In 2008, Chief Superintendent Steve Bending (Hackney’s then-borough commander) said, “I do not support the concept of any community having its own form of patrol service. There is a risk of other communities feeling intimidated by this course of action.” Shulem believes that the Met has reversed its opinion because of the sheer number of arrests Shomrim has helped to orchestrate over the past six years.
On the evening I join the group’s nightly patrol, Shomrim has already overseen two arrests: one man who was spotted threatening members of the public with hedge scissors, and another man caught using counterfeit £20 notes in shops around South Tottenham. The day before, volunteers observed a man – who was later arrested – exposing himself on Amhurst Park, and then helped to locate a missing autistic 14-year-old boy in Stamford Hill in just 40 minutes.
Shomrim is particularly adept at locating missing persons, and in the last two months have assisted police on eight searches for high-risk individuals, personally locating seven (the eighth was found by police). “It’s sheer numbers that ensure our success,” says Shulem. In a high-profile case in New York, 5,000 Orthodox Jewish volunteers coordinated by the Brooklyn South Shomrim searched for missing eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky, whose body was discovered during the search.
The necessity of having restricted foot patrols on Shabbat has been a problem for the group in the past. “Last year there was a spree of burglaries in the Jewish neighbourhoods in Stamford Hill each Friday,” Michael tells me. The suspect was eventually arrested and sentenced to six years imprisonment, but each week following Shabbat “we get a back-log of calls from people reporting incidents they had witnessed the previous day”, says Shulem.
It’s a demanding job, but one that Shulem is proud to have: “Volunteering is very much a part of life among the Orthodox community,” he says. But joining Shomrim isn’t easy, and applicants have to contend with a very strict acceptance policy. “We turn down applications every day,” says Shulem. “It’s tough to get in because it’s a risky job. If someone has a history of having a short temper we turn them down straight away.”
Despite previous reports, Shomrim does not stipulate that members must be Jewish, male, employed or married. However, being married indicates responsibility, Michael says, which is a factor that can support an application.
“There’s no rule saying you must be Jewish to be a member, though I’m not aware of any applications from the non-Jewish community,” says Shulem. There are currently two unmarried men in the Stamford Hill Shomrim, and a number of hotline operatives and back office staff are female – though all patrolling members are male. The organisation is a registered charity, and one of its three trustees is female.
Falling on the right side of the law in volatile circumstances is crucial to both legitimising the work Shomrim does and combatting the critics who accuse the group of vigilantism. However, even its members agree that knowing how to properly detain suspects and perform a safe citizens’ arrest comes with experience: “There’s just a hairline between what’s legal and what’s illegal, and if we do something on the wrong side of that line we run the risk of being arrested ourselves,” says Shulem.
No Stamford Hill Shomrim member has been accused of any crime in its six year existence. However, groups in New York have been criticised in the past for using excessive force against non-Jewish suspects, and last month in Brooklyn two Shomrim members were charged as part of a group of five men for attacking 22-year-old student Taj Patterson as he walked home from a party. Shomrim organisers in New York have also reportedly withheld information on suspected Jewish criminals, and the NYPD has openly criticised the group for not always notifying police when a call comes in.
For the Shomrim in Stamford Hill, though – the area with the highest concentration of Hasidic Jews in Europe – integration in the non-Jewish community is key. The patrols don’t just exist to serve the Orthodox community, Shulem says: “If you look at the results in the last quarter, 55 percent of victims of the crimes we stopped were non-Jewish.”
Last June, amid the rise in Islamaphobic attacks following the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, Shomrim met with Muslim community leaders to discuss cooperation between the two communities. The group now includes protection of the Cazenove Road Mosque and Community Centre on its nightly patrols. During the riots in Tottenham in August of 2011, Shomrim provided first aid to injured members of the public (including one young male who had been stabbed numerous times) when London Ambulance Service ambulances were unable to attend without a police escort.
“It’s just all about the local area,” says Shulem. “A crime is a crime and a victim is a victim.”
Follow Stamford Hill Shomrim on Twitter: @ShomrimOfficial
Originally published on VICE.com