Northwest citizens

Shown is BCP Officer Sam Bennett and watch members Adean Zapinsky, Carl Barsky and Arthur Marks getting their area assignments for patrol. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / November 12, 2012)

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 they 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.

Members of the patrol say they've been doing it without incident since 1982, protecting the entire community, 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 patrol.

At the center of the room stands Baltimore police officer Sam Bennett, a 10-year veteran who has been assigned to patrol with the group on a nightly basis over the past 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 magnetic 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. No weapons are allowed on patrol, even if a person is licensed to carry one. No one is ever allowed to leave their car. See something suspicious? Call in Bennett, the police officer.

"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, rowhouses 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.

Someone decided to form a citizen-oriented police enforcement program and about 200 members joined within a month. Two years later, Baltimore police assigned an officer to the group.

For years, the Northwest Citizens Patrol was limited to Jewish men by founder Rusty White. 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.

Each night, about eight volunteers patrol the neighborhoods of Fallstaff, Glen, Cheswolde, Greenspring and a few others. Bennett rides with another volunteer in a car, almost identical to a police cruiser, that was donated by a local grocery store. The sedan bears NWCP's name and a light bar that flashes yellow.

The patrol's services are extensive. They watch over people getting in and out of their cars and homes at night. They monitor the parking lots of community events. They put on auto theft protection seminars and conduct home security audits, and they engrave and mark bicycles for identification purposes.