With his dark-blue uniform, earpiece and walkie-talkie, Nochem Perlberger could pass for a police officer as he patrols the leafy streets of London’s Stamford Hill neighbourhood. Like an officer of the law, he responds to emergency calls, visits crime scenes and pursues suspects.
However, he is a member not of the constabulary but of the Stamford Hill Shomrim Rescue Patrol, a group of Orthodox Jewish men who, for the past two years, have been “policing” the streets of their community in Hackney.
Set up nearly two years ago, the group now has 22 patrolling members, a headquarters and even a 24-hour emergency number, staffed by six operators, which residents call to report crime. “Every house and child in the community knows this number off by heart,” said Mr Perlberger, one of the group’s committee members.
In the five months since the Stamford Hill Shomrim hotline was established, they have dealt with more than 2,000 calls including break-ins, thefts and muggings. On average, they identify three to five suspects a week and hand them over to the police.
When a crime is reported on the emergency line, the operator alerts the police via 999 and the Shomrim patrolmen via radio. Patrolmen close to the scene will then attend, day or night, often arriving before the police. They will then go about trying to identify and pursue the suspect.
But while the figures look impressive, not everyone is happy. The Metropolitan Police is not keen on the suggestion that their services require supplementation. Senior officers have voiced concern over the group’s existence, insisting that trained police officers and no one else should attempt to deal with crimes in progress.
Hackney’s borough commander, Chief Superintendent Steve Bending, said: “Whilst I have a great amount of respect for the Orthodox Jewish Community within Hackney, I do not support the concept of any community having its own form of patrol service. There is a risk of other communities feeling intimidated by this course of action.
“There is also an issue of members putting themselves at physical risk through attending an escalating situation, interfering with possible evidence or potentially risking criminal prosecution themselves, should their conduct in dealing with members of the public justify that course of action.”
Predictably, the Shomrim disagrees. Mr Perlberger countered: “There are a number of barriers which sometimes make it difficult for Jewish victims of crime to contact the police. There is a language barrier and a culture barrier. Also, the police have a lot of things to do and if a crime is minor they will take a long time to visit the victim. People think ‘Why waste time calling the police, if they won’t attend?’
“The police would like it if I said we were their eyes and ears, but I like to say that we are the first response. If someone is a victim of crime they call us and we can be there sometimes within 40 seconds. The nearest police station is a seven-minute drive.”
Once at the scene the Shomrim members say their first responsibility is to calm the victim, then they will attempt to “secure” the suspect. Mr Perlberger explained: “We try to ensure that the suspect does not run off, although we never put our hands on the suspect. If he does leave the scene we will follow him either on foot or in a car and relay our information to the police.”
The Stamford Hill Shomrim is twinned with a similar group in Golders Green. Both were established after a rise in petty crime in their respective areas and are funded by local fundraising. They are based on the Shomrim groups which were established in the USA in the 1980s.
To join the London Shomrim, members must be Jewish, male and married and willing to devote large chunks of their free time to the cause. Mr Perlberger added: “We only recruit people who can give away their hours. If someone has a 9am to 7pm job he is obviously not for this organisation.
“All members must be married because we think they will be more respected by the community. Also it shows they are not youngsters who are just looking for a bit of action, it shows they have responsibilities.”
All new recruits are given training. The group says that they teach members to approach situations with caution and never to get into a face-to-face confrontation with a suspect. “If anyone steps out of line they are dismissed,” Mr Perlberger adds.
While the group mirrors the US model, the major difference is that many of the American groups work in tandem with the local police department. In the UK it is not just Chief Supt Bending who is unhappy with the Shomrim set-up. When the group was established in 2008, Supt Steve Dann, the then Hackney commander, said: “I am very upset that no-one has approached me about this. It has been done behind my back. I see this as a slight against me that we were not delivering a service.”
And when the Golders Green group came into existence earlier this year the then commander Chief Supt Steve Kavanagh said: “Uniformed patrols which communities are asked to pay for make me extremely nervous.”
But Mr Perlberger is nonplussed. “Working with the police is our aim and I wish it was that way and if we had been welcomed by the police then that is the way it would be,” he said. “They say we might intimidate other groups, but we are not exclusively helping Jewish people. When people call us we don’t ask their religion, we will help anyone.
“If the police think this is a slight against them that is their problem. They might think we are vigilantes, but we are just trying to do what the police is supposed to be doing.”
Several pillars of the community like what the Shomrim do. Rabbi Kurt Sterm said: “These men are not vigilantes or anything like that. They are just really dedicated youngsters who want to help their community.”
Michael Levy, the Conservative Party councillor for the Springfield ward, added: “The police are understandably nervous because it is a new organisation but they will soon pick it up and realise that the group is a benefit and can help to drive down crime. It is a valuable service and will be able to augment the police service.
“The police encourage neighbourhoods to have a neighbourhood watch service and I cannot see a great deal of difference between that and this, apart from the fact that this is active rather than static. But that is a good thing because it will inevitably provide a great deal of intelligence for the police service.”