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.
The group also conducts 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.
The patrol also has a victims assistance program. Project Recourse tracks neighborhood criminal cases through the court system. Patrol members escort crime victims to court to protect them from intimidation during hearings. Members have put witnesses in hotels to protect them, and they push the court system to pursue prosecutions.
They doggedly track all major cases in their neighborhood. Although the family of Esther Lebowitz has long since moved away, Schachter still attends and testifies at the parole hearings of Wayne Stephen Young, who killed the 11-year-old in 1969.
"We as the Northwest Citizens Patrol don't want him on the street," Schachter said.
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," he reiterated over the radio.
Racial conflicts flare up in the neighborhood every so often. In 2010, a 23-year-old former Israeli special forces soldier who was part of Shomrim, an Orthodox Jewish civilian patrol group that also monitors Northwest Baltimore streets, followed a 15-year-old black teen, hit him with a walkie-talkie and, along with others, held him down for several minutes. This summer, the Shomrim member was sentenced to three years of probation for second-degree assault and false imprisonment.
Schachter makes it clear that his group is not affiliated with Shomrim.
"I know what we do," he said. "I don't know what anyone else does. As I mentioned, we never get out of the car to get involved."
He said his group, for the most part, has escaped racial tensions because of that fact. He also said many black residents support the group and contribute to NWCP's annual fundraising drives.
"We've never had any kinds of race wars with anyone here," he said.
Oscar Cobbs, a 30-year resident of Park Heights, agreed. The 66-year-old black retiree, who lives in a rowhouse 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."
Part of the reason Cobbs wanted to start his own group was because the Northwest Citizens Patrol limits monitoring to areas above Northern Parkway, which is a rough dividing line between black and Jewish neighborhoods.
"Believe it or not, they pretty much stick to themselves," said Keno Berry, 46, last week as he stood across from Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., which helps Jewish people with neighborhood housing.
"They don't bother anyone," said Berry, who is black and has lived in the community on and off for 20 years. "But I think they turn a blind eye to the black community and pay attention to their own."
His friend Robert Bass, 26, who lives nearby, agreed.
"If I get in an altercation, personally," he said, "I don't think they'd come to protect or come to the rescue."
Schachter disagreed, saying his group is committed to the safety of anyone in its jurisdiction, often extending its various services at community center meetings where the majority of attendees are black.
The night wore on as the patrol continued. Patrol cars found little suspicious, often passing by each other on the quiet streets. At one point, the radio barked with a patrol member saying he saw a youth with a hoodie and face mask. It turned out to be nothing.
Arthur Marks, 57, a Northwest Citizens Patrol member, rode in his family's Ford Taurus, using the opportunity to teach his 19-year-old daughter to drive while he kept one eye out for trouble.
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