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The lesson of the Werdesheim case

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The guilty verdict against one of two brothers accused of beating a Northwest Baltimore teen cuts through the conflicting accounts of what happened on Fallstaff Road nearly 18 months ago and arrives at an essential truth: When Eliyahu Werdesheim stepped out of his car and confronted Corey Ausby, he stopped being a volunteer on neighborhood patrol and became a vigilante. No matter whose account of the incident you believe, it is clear that he overstepped his bounds.

Neighborhood patrols serve a valuable purpose, and Shomrim, the organization to which Eliyahu Werdesheim belonged at the time, has long been lauded for its efforts in Northwest Baltimore. But the role of such groups is different from the role of the police, and Mr. Werdesheim's actions, rather than making the community safer, unnecessarily put himself and others at risk.

That's true even if we accept the Werdesheims' version of the story. As they and other defense witnesses told it, Eliyahu Werdesheim and his younger brother, Avi, were driving home when they heard a call over Eliyahu Werdesheim's Shomrim-issued radio about a report of a suspicious person. They say they found Corey Ausby walking along Fallstaff Road, wandering into yards, looking behind one house, and trying the door handle on an SUV parked in a driveway. At that point, they would have been perfectly justified in calling the police to report what they saw. But they didn't.

The defense witnesses say the brothers then got out of the car and confronted Mr. Ausby. The teen became upset, walked away from them and pulled a board from a wooden pallet near a home that was under construction. That certainly would have been a good time to call the police. But the Werdesheims didn't.

They returned to their car and watched Mr. Ausby as he walked down the street. Eliyahu Werdesheim testified that he grew concerned when he saw a woman with her dog down the block — yet another good time to call the police. Instead, Eliyahu Werdesheim got out of the car and sought to intercept Mr. Ausby again — he testified that his intention was to calm the teen. That was when the physical confrontation took place. Mr. Werdesheim claimed that the boy then came at him with a nail-studded two-by-four and swung the board toward his head, at which point he deflected the blow and knocked Mr. Ausby to the ground. Even if that was true, the fact remains that he never needed to be in that position in the first place.

Needless to say, the prosecution's version of events, in which the Werdsheims were the aggressors, would only underscore the point even more: They should have stayed in the car and called the police. Judge Pamela J. White, sorting through conflicting evidence, concluded that Eliyahu Werdesheim, who was a former member of Israeli special forces, used his military training to overpower Mr. Ausby and that the contact was not legally justified.

We have resisted the facile comparison of this case to the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. The community and authorities in Florida did not handle it with any semblance of the sensitivity and care that Baltimore officials and most community leaders have shown in the Werdesheim case. Moreover, much of the issue in the Martin case revolves around Florida's unwise handgun and self-defense laws, which are not relevant here. But the one genuine similarity is that both involved young men who overstepped their roles and got in over their heads.

It is important to note that the Werdesheims' activities are not reflective of Shomrim's role in the community. The organization has fielded thousands of calls without incident, and it has received numerous awards for its efforts from local and state law enforcement officials. Only one of the brothers, Eliyahu, was a Shomrim member, and he was suspended immediately after his encounter with Mr. Ausby. He is no longer a member of the group. Despite some calls for it to be disbanded immediately following the confrontation between the Werdesheims and Mr. Ausby, Shomrim has quietly gone about its business. The whole group should not be tainted by one former member's poor judgment.

But members of Shomrim and every other neighborhood patrol in Baltimore should think carefully about what happened on Fallstaff Road in late 2010. We may not be able to know for certain what happened or what was going through the minds of those involved, but there is nonetheless a clear lesson to be learned. Neighborhood watch groups can be the eyes and ears of the police, but they are not a substitute for them.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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