Shomrim volunteers attend an incident along with emergency
With crime rates soaring in Jewish areas, two communities have formed their own volunteer security force
Shomrim is notoriously private. The strictly Orthodox security organisation does not have a website or a phone number listed online and it does not advertise in local newspapers. It is only when there is a crime committed that you may notice a group of bearded men appear within minutes, wearing identical dark jackets and speaking into walkie-talkies.
Despite their apparent secrecy, Shomrim and its activities have attracted huge interest. While the Metropolitan Police aim to reach an emergency situation in 11 minutes, Shomrim boasts a two-minute response time. Its 50 volunteers are on call 24 hours a day, and keep their walkie-talkies with them at all times, at home, work or in synagogue.
Based on the well-established New York model, the privately-funded service has two branches in the UK, both set up in 2008. Its north-west London arm is based in Golders Green and Hendon. Formed by a group of residents, it now boasts 30 volunteers with police training, uniforms and a free hotline which receives around 300 calls a month. It has aided police in catching a gang stealing money from cashpoints and in locating missing persons.
Gary Ost, chief executive of Shomrim North-West London, recalls: "Around Pesach in 2008 there were five armed robberies in Golders Green. Two months later there were a crisis in the Middle East and three people ended up in hospital after being assaulted. At that point we said: 'Enough is enough'. We went to the rabbis. Then we met the police but were told that the borough of Barnet didn't have a high crime rate, so they couldn't justify more police. But we felt that was because crime wasn't being reported."
Poor reporting rates are endemic within the strictly Orthodox community. Police figures show Stamford Hill has the lowest crime rates in the borough of Hackney, but Nochem Perlberger, chairman of Stamford Hill Shomrim, says his group was set up because the lack of reporting meant police were not responding to the actual high level of crime. "If it's not an absolute emergency, and even sometimes when it is, the community will just not call the police," he says. "English is not the first language of the regular Stamford Hill person so when they are distressed after a crime, they find it hard to speak to the police."
Shomrim was formed in Stamford Hill in August 2008. "The break-ins and muggings were beyond control," Perlberger says. But the group did not get off to a positive start. "It began with a group of youngsters who had good intentions but were too young and a bit wild," he explains. "I admit we were not professional and did not have training or a disciplinary process."
When Chief Superintendent Steve Bending took over as Hackney borough commander in July 2009, tensions were already high between the Shomrim and police. "Under my predecessor, there was a lack of understanding by the police about why a community would want to have non-qualified people patrolling the area," Bending says. "There was also a lack of understanding by Shomrim of the legal processes we have to comply with. They could potentially put themselves at risk.
"But having accepted they were here, we looked at how to make use of the opportunities rather than look at the potential risks. We liaised with the New York Police Department and with their advice wrote a statement of expectations with minimum standards we'd expect of Shomrim, which they signed up to."
The statement includes an agreement that Shomrim members will have background checks, sign a code of conduct and implement a disciplinary process if a member acts inappropriately.
"We set up a real committee and looked into training and insurance," Perlberger says. "We cleaned out the group and ended up with mature grown-ups."
"They have moved away from trying to be a pseudo-police force to being evidence gatherers and observers there to support the police," Bending says. "They know they have much to lose if there is an incident where they don't comply with that statement of expectations."
In Golders Green, Shomrim kept police in the borough informed of their plans early on. Superintendent Neil Seabridge, Barnet's deputy borough commander, expressed similar initial fears to his Hackney counterpart. But the group's approach eased concerns to some extent.
"We started with neighbourhood patrols - two cars with two members each would drive around in shifts, with the instruction that if they saw anything suspicious they must immediately call the police. They were forbidden to leave the car," says Gary Ost.
Following meetings with the police, the Golders Green members took training from the Security Industry Authority (SIA), and bought jackets with insignia, knife-proof vests and walkie-talkies.
Nochem Perlberger believes that there was more of a need for Shomrim in Stamford Hill than Golders Green. "We bring someone in handcuffs to the police every day," he says. "We deal with real emergency calls. We are more physical than Golders Green and make citizens' arrests every day."
Almost three years on, both branches of Shomrim believe they have a better relationship with the police. Ost feels reporting rates have increased in Barnet because of the work Shomrim has done. "We try to promote contacting the police as much as possible," he says. "The first thing our operator says after someone has called is: 'Have you called the police?' People see Shomrim as a liaison with the police. If they haven't called the police, we will."
But Superintendent Seabridge says it is too early to tell if there has been an effect. "We have made it clear that their credibility rests on their ability to operate effectively and professionally. Until they provide that, it's a probationary relationship," he says.
Now other communities, including Edgware, are seeking Shomrim's help. Ost says: "If they bring 10 volunteers from Edgware, who will respond to calls and are available in the day and evenings, we will sign them up."
Shomrim North-West London is also considering extending its services on Shabbat. Last month, a child from Golders Green went missing on Shabbat. A member of the public walked to a Shomrim volunteer's house to alert them. Currently, Shomrim only has rabbinic permission to use walkie-talkies under pikuach nefesh - the concept of breaking Shabbat if there is danger to life. "There is pressure for Shomrim to operate on Shabbat - it's being discussed," Ost says.
The Stamford Hill branch has been awarded a £3,000 grant from Hackney Council for Voluntary Services, and both groups are applying for further funding. So it seems that with its expanding net and growing resources, Shomrim's attempts at remaining under the radar look likely to be in vain. "We are inundated with applications but we've capped it at 30 volunteers," Ost says. "We have to be very careful about who we let in. They represent not only Orthodox Jewry, but are also in the public eye. We cannot afford any mishaps."