Black community and civil rights leaders are calling for a Jewish neighborhood patrol group to be disbanded pending an investigation after one of the patrol's members was charged this week with assaulting a black teenager walking through a Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.
Fearing racial unrest, Jewish and black leaders are planning to meet next week so members of their communities can discuss long-standing concerns. Both groups have lived in the neighborhood for decades, but they respectively claim the north and south quadrants of the Northern Parkway corridor.
The alleged assault by a member of the Shomrim neighborhood patrol is "a horrific situation, and quite frankly, this kind of activity has caused riots in other parts of the country," said the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, a pastor working to organize the meeting. "What we need to do is fully explore this with the community and ease their fears, to ensure that this is not a culture."
The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, meanwhile, condemned Shomrim as a "violent fringe group" and said it would "not stand by and allow our children to be victimized."
A copy of the police report obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows that another Shomrim member responded to the scene and gave medical attention to the injured teen before police arrived, and helped verify for officers a description of the suspect's vehicle.
Nathan Willner, an attorney and Shomrim member, said Thursday that the group would not disband or be deterred in its work assisting the community. He said the group had responded to thousands of emergency situations without incident, and the member charged by police has been suspended.
"We have wide support from within the Jewish community and the African-American community, and we've worked closely with members of both," Willner said. "This was an isolated incident, and Shomrim will continue to do good work in the community."
Shomrim, which is Hebrew for "watchers," was started in late 2005 after a rash of burglaries in the Orthodox community around Upper Park Heights and Greenspring. Business leaders and other residents set up a hot line and began responding to community incidents, helping search for missing people and thwarting bicycle thefts.
The group is one of many largely Jewish volunteer organizations that have been lauded as a positive resource for the Park Heights community as police officials challenge city residents to be more active and engaged in their neighborhoods. Jewish residents also say such efforts are needed because of a history of victimization of neighbors, such as recent incidents in which rocks were thrown at a rabbi and a 15-year-old boy's arm was broken.
On Tuesday, police arrested 23-year-old Shomrim volunteer Eliyahu Eliezer Werdesheim and charged him with first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and false imprisonment after investigating a Nov. 19 incident in the 3300 block of Fallstaff Road.
According to the police report, the boy, a student at nearby Northwestern High School, was walking about 12:45 p.m. when a car pulled up alongside him. When he asked why he was being followed, the driver of the vehicle, who police say was Werdesheim, reportedly said, "You're the guy from yesterday on Park Heights, you want some problems?"
The report says the boy picked up a stick to defend himself when two men got out of the car, then dropped the stick when they approached. He said he was knocked to the ground and held down as the men patted him down and went through his pockets.
Charging documents say Werdesheim told the teen, "You don't belong around here," and struck him in the head with a radio, causing cuts to his head. Court records say the boy also suffered a broken wrist.
The police report states that the men fled but that another Shomrim member arrived, helped the boy and talked with police.
The teen's mother said that the family would not comment until they retained an attorney.
Werdesheim's attorney, Andrew Alperstein, said the boy came at the Shomrim members with a "two-by-four with nails in it." Werdesheim defended himself from the teen, who, a source said, has juvenile arrests for theft and larceny. The attorney said Werdesheim has long been active in the community and would be vindicated.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake responded Thursday to calls for city officials to stop supporting the group, and the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods was in close contact with neighborhood groups in the Park Heights area, said Ryan O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman.
O'Doherty said the mayor supports Citizens on Patrol organizations and believes that Shomrim has been a good partner with police in making Baltimore safer.
"But this individual allegedly took the law into his own hands," O'Doherty said. "And she will not tolerate acts of vigilantism or other abuses."
Some black leaders said the allegations warrant suspending Shomrim, at least until an investigation of its operations is complete.
"They need to be out of the picture right now until this thing is over," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, the former president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who discussed the incident for hours Thursday morning on WOLB-1010 AM. He said that "the African-American community is very concerned about what happened."
The ministerial alliance, a coalition of clergy from across the region, demanded a full investigative report from city police and said in a statement that it wants "to see all of the offenders prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he wanted to know why the other Shomrim members allegedly involved in the incident had not been arrested by police or suspended by the group. He met with Shomrim leaders Thursday afternoon and said they were forthcoming.
"Everybody's trying to seek the truth, and our message stands: We've got to get to the bottom of this," Abramson said. "Hopefully, out of that will come a better understanding of what happened."
The teen who was allegedly assaulted by Werdesheim was enrolled at Northwestern High, a school that is about 97 percent black and located in the heart of the Park Heights Jewish community. The teen was not on school grounds at the time of the incident, according to city school officials.
Jason Hartling, principal of Northwestern, said that there have been tensions with the Jewish community but that relations have vastly improved in recent years. He said that Shomrim has been a partner with the school, alerting him to any community issues involving his students. The school also participates in a student exchange program with a nearby Jewish high school.
"There's a ton of work that's still to be done, but I think there's been some progress," Hartling said. "An event like this scares me because I don't want us to lose that progress, and if anything, we can use this event to continue that."
But Shaquille Carbon, a junior at Northwestern, said that the walk from the southern part of Park Heights to the school reveals just how far the community still has to go. He's seen Shomrim members on their neighborhood walks, and he doesn't agree with the group's mission.
"What happened was a form of modern-day racism," Carbon said. "It's a multiracial community, so why is there a Jewish patrol group, rather than a community patrol group? They seem to just see the stereotypes of black people, and they feel as though they need to protect themselves.
"My experience is, when I walk through this community, they don't look at me, they don't speak to me if I say hi, and they don't acknowledge my existence. That's what makes the racial tension more severe."