Baltimore Police Officer Sam Bennett, center, and watch members, from… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
Amid a rash of violent robberies, the Northwest Citizens Patrol sent out an urgent call on Facebook for extra volunteers to help monitor the streets of its Baltimore neighborhood. Within five days, two residents had been robbed at gunpoint while another woman had been pistol-whipped.
The unusual series of crimes led the group to bolster its standard patrol, adding unmarked vehicles as members looked for suspects and suspicious activity. But members stuck with the rules that have guided the group for 30 years and helped make it a model for similar organizations across the United States: Nobody brings a weapon and nobody gets out of the car.
The patrol counts about 400 members, and nearly all are white and Jewish; police say the suspects in the string of recent attacks are black — a distinction that has sparked neighborhood conflict before.
The Northwest community saw racial tensions rise two years ago when a Jewish member of a separate citizens patrol confronted, hit and held down a black teen who had aroused his suspicion. In a post-Trayvon Martin world, the Northwest Citizens Patrol faces the difficulty of walking the line between proactive policing and racial profiling. (Martin was the 17-year-old killed earlier this year in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer who says he was acting in self-defense.)
Members of the patrol say they've been protecting the community without incident since the 1980s, though among black residents they struggle with the perception that they look out for just one population.
In the basement of the Agudath Israel of Baltimore synagogue, a handful of graying, middle-aged men gathered on a recent evening, most wearing yarmulkes. It's been the designated "ready room" of the patrol since the beginning, and the walls of the musty basement are covered in plaques and certificates from state dignitaries honoring the group.
At the center of the room stood Baltimore Police Officer Sam Bennett, a 10-year veteran who has been assigned to patrol with the group on a nightly basis over the last five years.
"If you see a group of individuals hanging out in the same place," he told the men, "let me know."
The men grab large, triangular roof adornments, not all that different from pizza delivery signs, to put on their cars. Each lights up with the words, "NWCP Radio Car." They also swing by a large cabinet for equipment.
"Here's where we keep our machine guns," patrol President Neil Schachter said dryly.
Inside are no guns, but holstered Maglites and hand-held radios. See something suspicious? Call in Officer Bennett.
"We're not detectives looking to catch anyone in the act," Schachter said.
"Eyes and ears only," Bennett added. "No way, shape or form do they do enforcement."
The Northwest Citizens Patrol began in 1982. The story goes that crime in the community of Colonial houses, row houses and apartment complexes began to grow more and more violent in the late 1970s, until a man who had been accosted at gunpoint decided to fight back, swatting at the gun, which fired aimlessly.
A citizen-oriented police enforcement program was formed, and about 200 members joined within a month. Two years later, Baltimore police assigned an officer to the group.
For years, founder Rusty White limited the Northwest Citizens Patrol to Jewish men. He argued that religious bonds kept the patrol together, and neighborhood rabbis early on made participation a mitzvah, or religious obligation, for the Jewish men of the community. Women were not allowed to join unless they patrolled with their husbands. Others, including blacks, were not permitted.
But after complaints about exclusivity, the organization opened its membership to everyone in 1994. A few African Americans are members today, Schachter said, and women patrol once in a while.
The patrol's services are extensive — patrolling the neighborhood, escorting crime victims to court, holding auto theft protection seminars, conducting home surveillance.
A few years ago, when a woman suspected an intruder coming and going in her home, she called police, who told her to call the patrol, Schachter said. The group set up surveillance cameras and discovered
her apartment's maintenance supervisor viewing pornography on her computer.
Because of an unusual spate of robberies in Upper Park Heights, the patrol recently beefed up its monitoring there.
As members drove through the community, the radio crackled. Officer Bennett told patrol members bluntly that they ought to be on the lookout for suspicious black teens, ages 16 and 18, wearing sweat pants and with scarfs covering their faces.
"I'm not shy about saying that," Schachter reiterated over the radio.
He said his group, for the most part, had escaped racial tensions and that many black residents supported the group and contributed to its fundraising drives.
"We've never had any kind of race wars with anyone here," Schachter said.
Oscar Cobbs, a 30-year resident of Park Heights, agreed. The 66-year-old black retiree, who lives in a row house flanked by boarded-up homes, worked with patrol members to set up a similar program for his mostly black neighborhood. It failed because of a lack of unity, but he said he hasn't given up.
"They were very helpful," Cobbs said. "As far as what they do in their community, they're great. We wanted to replicate the commitment of their religious community with our community and be as committed as they are."