Rabbis Packing Heat
By Dave Baker
The letters started in 2004. For years, Rabbi Daniel Greer and his sons, Rabbis Dov and Eliezer, pressed New Haven, Connecticut’s Mayor John DeStefano and then Chief of Police Francisco Ortiz Jr. to address the rash of crime in their neighborhood. Their students and faculty members at the Yeshiva, an orthodox Jewish seminary and community center, were getting jumped and mugged on an almost nightly basis. When Dov Greer was assaulted outside of his Elm Street home in June 2007, his brother Eliezer put down the pen and picked up a handgun.
The Greers formed the Edgewood Park Defense Patrols, an armed citizen’s group that took up the responsibility of making their community safer. “The patrols started because the police weren’t doing their job,” said the EPDP’s founder Eliezer Greer. Launching armed patrols of Edgewood, an area including Norton Street, Edgewood Avenue, West Park and Whalley Avenue, was a reluctant last resort to reinstate order in, what became, a peak year for crime in the city of New Haven.
The driving force behind the EPDP stems from the concept of community policing, a recent trend in law enforcement commonly associated with the New York Police Department’s unprecedented stand against organized crime in the early 1990s. Community policing requires a collaborative effort between police and the community they serve. To be effective, law enforcement must become immersed in the population, get out of the squad car and make a legitimate connection. Community policing takes a “bottom up approach,” attacking crime at its base level. For example, before Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Chief William Bratton took down the mafia, they took their operation to the subways, targeting turnstile jumpers, all part of a larger program to clamp down on petty crimes at a local level. Studies had shown that a more aggressive approach for dealing with things like pickpockets contributed to the overall decline in violent crime. Crime in Manhattan took a precipitous fall over the next few years.
Former Branford, CT Chief of Police John DeCarlo holds a PhD in Criminal Justice from the City University of New York Graduate Center and is currently a faculty member at the University of New Haven. He is widely considered an expert in community policing and has extensively researched several models. Coming from a social science background, Dr. DeCarlo began his career in law enforcement as a full-time scientist and a part-time cop. His empirical approach to law enforcement is something unique to community policing, blending research with police work. “Police are reactionary, they don’t have time do research. So you educate cops about new research and you make succession plans [for new leaders]. You don’t act in an insular way – you become apart of the community,” DeCarlo said.
The traditional model used for civilian involvement in this process follows the “see something, say something” approach, informing the local PD of “suspicious activity.” The Edgewood Park Defense Patrols took it to a new level.
Working in pairs, the EPDP launched nightly foot and bicycle patrols of Edgewood, covering roughly 24 square blocks. The EPDP’s 18-person membership was as diverse as the beats they walked. Comprised of people from different racial, social, and economic backgrounds, they fixed their sights one goal: protecting their neighborhoods. “We didn’t want people to perceive this as a “Jewish only” thing,” Greer said. Though the patrols came across as a purely reactionary measure to Greer’s brother being jumped, turning to firearms was the culmination of years of frustration and discontent.
Greer handpicked his team, running background checks on every prospective member, and ensured that every member carrying a weapon was properly licensed. To avoid any legal liability, Greer never filed for non-profit status. The EPDP existed only as a group of individuals, not a legal entity. Only one patrolman carried a weapon at a time and Greer never released to the media the make or model of his pistol. Much of the city’s focus centered on the patrols being armed, ignoring the fact that they demonstrated a strong, unified stand against crime. The EPDP didn’t present a gun or racial issue; it was a response to the city’s growing crime issue.
The Edgewood patrols were met with considerable opposition from New Haven’s political and community leaders – terms like “radicals” and “vigilantes” were thrown around on several instances. Politicians, other Jewish leaders and black clergy criticized them for taking the law into their own hands, fearing that a shooting involving an EPDP member would create a powder keg of violence and racial tension. In a June 2007 press release, Mayor John DeStefano’s office deemed the patrols a “recipe for disaster” and reiterated their unwavering confidence in the police department. With the community and political elite divided, New Haven residents offered encouragement and support. “The average person in our neighborhoods would say, ‘keep it up’ or ‘don’t let ‘em get ya down.’ They were entirely for the patrols,” Greer recounted.
Public opinion in the New Haven Register echoed this sentiment. Dominating the front page for nearly two weeks, Edgewood was the story of the summer. The June 13, 2007 “Soundoff” section, which publishes comments from readers, concluded that public opinion was almost unanimously behind the Greers. The comments ranged from, “Sadly, yes, it’s time to defend yourself and your neighborhood,” to “Armed citizen patrols are necessary in New Haven. The police force is a mess.”
The patrols were active for 18 months, only six of them with weapons. “We had to capitulate something to city hall when [Chief of Police] Ortiz stepped down. The goal was to be a set of eyes and ears; to be out there, be very visible, make a statement and call the cops if anything went wrong,” Greer said. Edgewood made that statement. In those six months, robberies in Edgewood were reduced by 21 percent, aggravated assaults by 23 percent, and burglaries by 27. They established a presence and got the people of New Haven involved in the conversation on how to reduce crime. And they did so without ever drawing a weapon.
The EPDP disbanded shortly after Chief Ortiz resigned from the New Haven Police Department in April of 2008. No strangers to local politics, the Greers had been active on the New Haven political scene for decades, leading some to believe that the armed patrols were only leverage to oust a police chief they took serious issue with. “They [the patrols] basically stopped because crime went down. To do something like this, an enormous amount of work goes into it. This is for someone who likes a fight. You have to like the street, you have to like people; you have like getting yelled at and yelling back,” Greer said.
For weeks, the Greers hijacked headlines and garnered national attention. Eliezer Greer’s model for community policing shook up New Haven politics and drove a schism between a city hall that labeled his armed patrols dangerous and a city that thought them necessary. The Greers may have been playing the political game as much as they were combating crime, (Rabbi Daniel Greer still brings up reinstating the patrols during crime spikes) but they managed significantly cut down crime in the 24th ward.
Since 2007, New Haven has cycled through two police chiefs and experienced another major violent crime wave in 2011. Recently appointed Chief Dean Esserman has taken steps to reintroduce community policing, such as revitalizing the old walking beats program, and so far 2012 has seen drastic reductions in crime. These measures are costly, however, requiring substantial commitments of funding and manpower.
While Greer’s model for community policing proved effective and without incident in the 24th ward, armed patrols have been disastrous in other parts of the country. On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Sanford, Florida resident Trayvon Martin was fatally shot at close range by armed neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. Zimmerman believed Martin was acting suspiciously, later claiming that Martin attacked him and he fired in self-defense. Zimmerman was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
Today, Eliezer Greer lives comfortably at his Ellsworth Street home. He continues his involvement with city politics and the Yeshiva, putting his neighborhood watch days behind him. “We don’t have the patrols because nothing happens here anymore. Walk around this area; nothing happens. We let troublemakers know they’re being watched, so they take it somewhere else,” Greer said. The EPDP reduced crime in their area, but only after implementing extreme measures and putting an entire city on edge. The evidence is there: community policing works. And with most models, its greatest assets are high visibility, an engaged community, and a watchful eye – not a sidearm.