With matching jackets and radios and a hotline staffed around the clock, members of an Orthodox Jewish citizen patrol group in Northwest Baltimore view themselves as a necessary complement to city police to keep their neighborhood safe.
But one member may have recently taken the role too far. On Tuesday, a participant in the Shomrim patrol organization was arrested after allegedly striking a 15-year-old boy and telling him, "You don't belong around here."
Police arrested 23-year-old Eliyahu Eliezer Werdesheim, a former Israeli special forces soldier, and charged him with first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and false imprisonment in a Nov. 19 incident in the 3300 block of Fallstaff Road. According to court records, the teen's wrist was broken in the scuffle and he suffered cuts to the back of his head.
"Shomrim has and continues to be a good partner in making the northwest community safer," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Wednesday. "However, this individual took the law into his own hands, and the Baltimore Police Department will not tolerate acts of vigilantism from any organization."
Andrew Alperstein, Werdesheim's attorney, said his client was observing someone believed to be a criminal suspect. The boy became angry because he was being watched, picked up a stick and attacked Werdesheim, the attorney said.
"Mr. Werdesheim defended himself, and won that fight," Alperstein said, calling it "nothing more than a self-defense situation."
Nathan Willner, an attorney and Shomrim member, said the organization had suspended Werdesheim pending an internal investigation. He said the group does not condone inappropriate behavior, but he was confident that Werdesheim would be vindicated in the court system.
The teen is black, and community leaders were concerned that the incident could further strain the sometimes tense relations between the area's large Jewish and black communities. Some community and faith-based leaders called for officials to address the potential fallout.
The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, organizer of the Maryland chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a local pastor, said Thursday that various leaders of the Jewish and black community plan to meet next week to discuss racial tensions in the Park Heights neighborhood.
Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he would demand that the incident be fully investigated to satisfy concerns.
"It's vital for the sake of the community that both groups get along well, and for the most part they do," Abramson said. "Obviously, this incident, no matter who is right or wrong, exacerbates tensions, and we're not going to tolerate any cover-up."
Detectives investigated the incident for more than a week before deciding to file charges. According to court records, the teen said he was walking at 12:45 p.m. when a vehicle with two males inside pulled up and began driving next to him. The victim told police that they followed him for a short distance before jumping out of the vehicle and surrounding him.
He said the passenger of the vehicle grabbed him and threw him to the ground. Then the driver — who police believe was Werdesheim — struck the teen in the head with his radio and asked if he "had anything on him."
According to the victim, Werdesheim yelled, "You wanna [expletive] with us, you don't belong here, get outta here!"
A third man got out of a white van and struck the victim in the back with his knee, then held him to the ground as the other men patted him down, the teen told police. He said the men fled from the area, and he called police.
The victim could not be reached for comment. Police said the teen was not under investigation in this incident, though a source said he has a juvenile arrest record that includes theft charges. Juvenile criminal records are not publicly available.
Records show the warrant was issued for Werdesheim's arrest, and he was given an opportunity to turn himself in. Police said he was picked up by the Warrant Apprehension Task Force when he did not. He posted $50,000 bond and was released.
Guglielmi said Shomrim had been "completely cooperative" and the other two men said to be involved in the altercation were not under investigation. Willner said he did not know whether other Shomrim members were involved and said no other members had been suspended.
But Abramson said the police account implicated other Shomrim members, and he was concerned that the group was not forthcoming. "If that is the case, Shomrim has to be brought into question," Abramson said.
Patricia Rideout-Howard, of the Northwest Police Community Relations Council, said she hadn't heard complaints about Shomrim or other Jewish patrol groups in recent years. But she said that's because blacks and Jews in the area largely keep to themselves.
"They basically provide the services for themselves. They don't come on the other side of Northern Parkway, and would really prefer us not to come on the other side," she said. "We know what the feelings on both sides are and how it is. Bottom line, we respect each other."
Shomrim, which is Hebrew for "watchers," was started in late 2005 after a rash of burglaries in the city's Orthodox community around Upper Park Heights and Greenspring. Several men decided to start patrolling the streets in the early morning hours.
Those efforts morphed into a tightly coordinated operation that screens and trains new members and is often on the scene before police. Splitting the area into quadrants, group members have led search efforts for missing people, thwarted bicycle thefts and intervened in suicide attempts.
Residents say several recent incidents have underscored the need for neighbors to look out for one another. In September, a rabbi was pelted with rocks by a group of teens while walking to his synagogue, an attack that occurred days after his vehicle was stolen and damaged, according to a report in the Jewish Times. Around the same time, an Orthodox Jewish boy was pelted with rocks and his arm was broken by teens calling him a "dirty Jew."
Although most of Shomrim's members are local shopkeepers and businessmen, Werdesheim came with a security background: In addition to his Israeli military background, he says he is CEO of a security company that serves diplomats and executives when they travel abroad, according to his website and an August profile in the Washington Post. He worked for an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, where he specialized in urban counterterrorism, hostage rescue and high-profile apprehensions.
"This young man has no [criminal] record, and is well thought of in the community," said Alperstein, his attorney. "His role in doing this was really of giving back and community service. … Hopefully the community will stand behind him as he continues to preserve his good name."
Police have worked closely with Shomrim members, using them as a resource but also advising them on how to keep themselves safe and not to engage suspects in potentially dangerous situations. But some officers have groused that members can be meddlesome or take the law into their own hands.
Until now, those sentiments hadn't erupted in public controversy in Baltimore. But in New York, a Shomrim group in Crown Heights has long been accused of inflaming racial tensions and profiling young black men as criminals, according to a 2009 article in the Christian Science Monitor. Community leaders there said they largely saw the patrols as beneficial, however.
Shomrim is just one of the many Jewish volunteer public safety groups in Northwest Baltimore. The Northwest Citizens Patrol counts hundreds of members and organizes patrols each night, and there is also an all-volunteer ambulance service and a roadside assistance service that changes flat tires, provides jump-starts and responds when community members lock their keys in a car.
"The Jewish community relies on Shomrim, and they're a bridge between the police and the community," said Guglielmi, the police spokesman. "Whatever we've needed from them, they've been helpful. This is more between the individual and the police department, than Shomrim."
Willner said the assault allegations were an aberration.
"We've had over 4,600 calls for service the past five years, and this is the only incident we've had of this kind," Willner said. "We're going to continue to serve our community."