Confusion reigned as Jewish community groups sought Baltimore curfew exemptions

Jewish safety groups got the run around on curfew exemptions.

On April 28 — just hours before the first nightly curfew would go into effect in Baltimore — Nathan Willner wrote an email to a neighborhood liaison in the office of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake thanking her for "verbally authorizing" volunteers with the Jewish safety patrol groups Shomrim and Chaverim to be out past 10 p.m.

But Willner, an attorney and president of the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association, said in the 2:36 p.m. email that he also wanted the curfew exception in writing — lest volunteers run into issues when police saw them out and about after the curfew was in effect.

"I'm sure you understand that I have to have it in writing to protect the responders from any issues," he wrote.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, Willner would exchange a flurry of emails with several city officials, getting mixed responses until he was ultimately told on the afternoon of April 29 that a decision had been made not to issue curfew exemptions to the groups.

The email exchange — obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request — highlights confusion surrounding who would be exempt from the curfew even after it was put into place.

Asked for comment Monday, Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said only that the city's law department "made the decision not to grant written exceptions to the curfew, whether it was for Shomrim or for other neighborhood patrol organizations."

Willner did not respond to a request for comment.

But the email exchange lays the issues bare.

At 9:08 p.m. on April 28, hours after not receiving a response to his request for written authorization from Susannah Feinstein, the Northwest Neighborhood Liaison in Rawlings-Blake's office, Willner emailed Rawlings-Blake's chief of staff Kaliope Parthemos, again asking for the authorization and noting that the curfew would be in effect in less than an hour.

"We would like to keep the community at ease knowing that these response organizations are available to assist if needed," he wrote.

Feinstein did not respond until the following morning, when she suggested Willner "reach out to the police department" for an answer.

Willner then emailed Libit, saying Feinstein was "passing the buck" to police and that his questions were "not a Police issue, the executive order came from the Mayor, so the directive to allow these groups an exemption to the curfew has to come from the Mayor's office as well."

He said groups like Shomrim and Chaverim "free up Police resources and act as a force multiplier by providing additional assistance with all kinds of non-emergency issues," noting that Shomrim had received about 65 phone calls the day before on a range of issues, many of them "basic questions about the safety" of the neighborhood.

"Isn't it better they handle the small things rather than directing everyone to call 911 every time they have a basic question?" he asked.

Libit responded by asking Willner if there was a liaison from the Baltimore Police Department that Shomrim and Chaverim deal with on a regular basis.

Willner fired back.

"One of the things [then Police Commissioner Anthony] Batts was supposed to set up was a clear contact for these groups and despite multiple e-mails he never did, so there is no one person to ask," Willner wrote. "I could go to the Major of the [Northwestern District] but that is going to create another round of e-mails and phone calls. I don't think he really has the time to deal with this and quite frankly I don't want to bother him with this if it is not needed. Also there are other law enforcement agencies in the area, they won't know what the Major in the NWD told this group and then they will have to wait to get ahold of him to verify it."

The broader Jewish community had been "extremely cooperative" in following the curfew — synagogue services canceled, etc. — and without a written exemption, Willner wrote, the Rabbis in the community "will not feel comfortable to advise people to intentionally break with the Mayor's Orders."

A little more than an hour later, Libit responded to Willner once more.

"I have communicated with the City Solicitor and the director of police department's legal affairs. They explained to me that they have made a decision to not [issue] written exceptions to this policy," Libit wrote. "However, they intend to bring this to the BPD's attention, and if there is a renewal of the curfew order, they will see whether BPD would favor writing an exemption for Shomrim (and other similar type groups) into the curfew order. I'm sorry, because I know that this is not the answer you are looking for."

Willner responded that he had been defending Rawlings-Blake all week, had spoken on a Jewish radio station out of New York with a national audience saying she was doing a "fantastic job," and had been telling members of Baltimore's Jewish community that he could get their concerns to the mayor's office.

"Now I look like a liar or that the Mayor's office gives wrong advice," he said.

Libit responded, apologizing for the confusion and saying it was not Feinstein's fault.

Willner's last response asks for a meeting once the unrest dies down — in part to talk about ways to "promote" Rawlings-Blake.

"Unfortunately, she will need the Jewish community vote now more than ever," he wrote, mentioning potential challengers for the mayoral race in 2016. "There will be a lot of fodder for her opponents to throw at her, we need to make sure that there is no room for any challenger to gain favor in the Jewish community."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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