Mayor de Blasio & city officials in Borough Park in January (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
[UPDATE (5/19/20): After this story was published, an NYPD spokesperson told Gotham Gazette security cameras had been installed at 30 locations in Brooklyn as part of an effort to combat anti-Semitic hate crimes. The remaining 70 cameras planned to be deployed with the input of the community have likely been put on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak, the spokesperson said.]
Mayor Bill de Blasio in January announced 100 new police security cameras and more officers on the streets in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods as part of an effort, embraced by officials across the political spectrum, to combat a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City and State. But officials representing those communities say the cameras were never installed and the patrols never came, and that the spirit of protection has in recent weeks been replaced with one of suspicion and "retaliation," spurred on by the mayor himself in response to large public gatherings, as the pandemic has gripped the city.
"We were calling on the city to do more and to give us additional resources when Jews were being beaten, rocks thrown at them, on a daily basis in New York City. We were begging for more help. We were begging for additional resources...we were begging for manpower," said State Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, who represents Borough Park and is a former aide to de Blasio, in an interview.
"At the end of the day we were basically told, 'This is all we have, we don't have additional resources,'" he said of a period late last year after a series of violent attacks.
But Eichenstein and other local leaders say Orthodox Jewish communities have recently been flooded by police officers enforcing social distancing, especially in the days following the funeral of a rabbi in Williamsburg that saw thousands of mourners gathering in close quarters. The contrast in responses points to a complicated relationship between Orthodox Jews and city government.
"The number of cops that I saw floating around in Williamsburg in the last day or two of last week far exceeded the number of cops we were begging the mayor to send us last year and in January," said City Council Member Kalman Yeger, whose district overlaps Eichenstein's, of the period immediately following the April 28 funeral. The funeral gathering itself was met with a heavy police response, with even the mayor himself arriving on the scene to make sure the crowd dispersed. De Blasio then posted a highly controversial tweet, in which he singled out "the Jewish community" for violating rules established by executive order.
In the days that followed the leaders described what Eichenstein called a "ticketing blitz [of] people off the streets" for not wearing face coverings.
"Everyone should be wearing masks when you go out, people need to socially distance, of course we all want to stop the virus. But I wish we would've seen that same response when Jews were being beaten on the streets of New York on a daily basis. We did not see the response that we saw in retaliation to the funeral," Eichenstein said.
In January, in response to a surge in anti-Semitic crimes in 2019, including a stabbing at a Hannukah celebration in Monsey, a shooting at a kosher deli in Jersey City, and a series of verbal and physical attacks mostly in Brooklyn, de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo said they were taking steps to "harden security" in Jewish communities.
Crimes targeting Jews accounted for 242 of the 420 hate crimes reported to the NYPD in 2019, a 26 percent rise over the previous year and an 86 percent increase since 2015.
In January, the mayor announced 100 new surveillance cameras would be installed in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park -- areas home to large Orthodox Jewish populations -- and that over 150 officers had been deployed there. The plan was for the first 30 cameras to be installed by March with the remaining 70 to be sited with the input of the community.
"I'm not aware of a single one of them that has actually been installed and turned on," Yeger said.
"I can tell you this, nobody has discussed it with me," said Eichenstein. "The only cameras that I know that were installed in my district in the last couple of weeks are speed cameras. That's the only cameras I know that were installed. They carry tickets, that's unfortunate.”
But the reality surrounding the cameras is unclear and it is possible some of them have been installed. A March 4 summary of the NYPD's proposed budget prepared by the City Council states that the installation formula of the 100 cameras had not changed and a spokesperson for de Blasio told Gotham Gazette their "gut recollection" is that the first tranche of cameras was installed and the city was aiming to begin the community engagement process for the second tranche around the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York. Neither the mayor's office nor the police department provided details on the cameras over the course of multiple conversations by email and phone spanning two weeks.
The camera plan was alarming to some civil rights advocates at the time, and the lack of public information about its implementation, especially in light of recent social distancing controversies, has heightened the concern.
"Once those cameras are in place in communities you are able to piece together people's entire daily movements, their comings and goings, in a way that is subject to really little oversight," said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"There is very little control placed over how long the NYPD is retaining the footage, what other purposes they are using it for," he said. "So whether it is from the cameras that can be deployed as part of efforts to combat anti-Semitism, or just security and surveillance cameras in general, the same concern remains that they lend themselves to potential misuse as tools for criminal enforcement."
The police department has acknowledged using its network of cameras to monitor social distancing throughout the city. In early April, NY1 reported Chief of Department Terence Monahan saying, "We move from camera to camera to different parks around the city. We can see what the conditions are. If we see any overcrowding we will be able to send our teams out there."
There is no clear data on how many cameras, public and private, the NYPD has access to on a daily basis, including no accounting of how many existed in Orthodox neighborhoods before the mayor's announcement.
The NYPD's enforcement tactics have come under scrutiny since data was released on May 8 showing 81 percent of social distancing summonses and 90 percent of arrests related to COVID-19 have been of black and Latino people. Only 51 of the 374 summonses issued for social distancing violations between March 16 and May 5 went to white people, 42 of which were in Brooklyn, according to the data, with at least 15 of those on the night of the funeral and the morning after at synagogues in Williamsburg. And the mayor has been criticized for his decision to establish the NYPD, rather than public health officials and community groups, as the main agency responsible for ensuring people do not spread the virus in public.
In response to sweeping blowback and charges of “racist” policing, on Friday de Blasio announced a "reset" in enforcement with officers focused on breaking up groups of six or more people (who don’t live together) with warnings and summonses if necessary, and a heavier reliance on "civilian ambassadors" from other city agencies and community-based messengers to distribute face coverings and facilitate distancing.
Shea informed officers in a letter Friday that, "Moving forward...we will no longer issue summonses or make arrests for infractions related to face coverings — absent of a crime or other violation being committed."
The moves have been praised by a number of elected officials and advocates who had pushed for the reforms.
The night of the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz and the day after, de Blasio said the city would be pursuing summonses for gatherings aggressively, and specifically called out "the Jewish community."
In the tweet just after the funeral, which was coordinated with the NYPD and reportedly drew over 2,000 people paying respects to the rabbi, who died of COVID-19, de Blasio wrote: "My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period."
The tweet received intense criticism from Jews and non-Jews alike. Eichenstein responded by condemning the gathering but stated: "Mr. @NYCMayor: it is also completely unacceptable to call out the entire Jewish community especially as a group that has been endlessly under attack in NYC."
Others called the comment insensitive but said it belied the many examples of targeted support Orthodox Jewish enclaves have received from de Blasio, who has been a strong ally throughout his career and represented parts of those communities in Brooklyn during his time in the City Council. The assertion that the mayor is anti-Semitic is "of course, absurd because the Mayor he’s been one of the most responsive Mayor’s to the entire spectrum of NY’s Jewish community," tweeted former City Council Member David Greenfield, who represented Borough Park before Yeger and is now head of The Met Council, a social service provider based in the Orthodox community.
"I spoke last night out of passion. I could not believe my eyes," the mayor said the next morning when asked by a reporter if he would apologize for his comments. "I spoke out of real distress that people's lives were in danger before my eyes and I was not going to tolerate it. So I regret if the way I said it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way. That was not my intention."
"It was said with love, but it was tough love,” he continued. “It was anger and frustration and what I saw, no...it's not happened other places. Let's be honest, this kind of gathering has happened in only a few places and it cannot continue. It's endangering the lives of people in the community.”
According to the NYPD, the next morning on April 29 police issued three summonses at a synagogue in the 90th Precinct, which covers Williamsburg, after receiving a 311 call "in regards to violating New York City social distancing policy." One of the summonses was for disorderly conduct related to social distancing and two were for "doors being chained from the inside" in violation of fire code, said Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a department spokesperson. That afternoon, eight more summonses were issued at another synagogue in the same precinct by officers who didn't get a 311 call but who were "in the vicinity," McRorie said, of which six were again for having "chains on the doors" and two for "social distancing violations."
The NYPD did not provide specific information on enforcement in other heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
"If the City of New York wants to send a thousand cops to the neighborhood to protect the people, it can do that. And if it wants to send a thousand cops to a neighborhood to terrorize people, it can do that," Yeger said. "The mayor's office has to decide which one it wants to do."
According to the Council's March budget summary for the upcoming fiscal year beginning in July, each precinct in Borough Park, Midwood, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Williamsburg "will have an additional 4 to 6 officers per tour. Police presence will also be increased specifically at houses of worship and local events." It also says six new NYPD light towers would be erected in Borough Park.
The mayor's office and NYPD have both refused to share communications and guidelines issued to officers around when people should receive a warning versus a summons for violating social distancing protocols. The police department did not answer questions about what specific tools it was using to monitor social distancing in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
When asked about the potential for police security cameras to be used for targeted social distancing enforcement in Jewish communities, Eichenstein told Gotham Gazette: "I think that we should share a goal of what the purpose is of all of these security measures, be it cameras, be it whatever it is. These are measures to keep a community safe. These are not ‘big brother’ tools."
"It is true that if they start using it for other -- you know monetary fines, that would be a problem," he added.
Orthodox leaders are still seeking more protection from hate crimes, which they say are not past just because crime in general is down during the outbreak. Reported anti-Semitic hate crimes are down 40 percent between January and May compared to the same period last year, according to police data. In March, the month the city's stay-at-home order went into effect, the pace at which reports of anti-Semitic crime fell more than doubled.
"Over the course of a 365-day year, upwards of 350 of them, the police department works hand in hand with the community and does a good job," said Yeger. "Here and there there is a problem. On balance, the security cameras will provide security when they actually show up. Ask me how I feel when they actually show up."
But Sisitzky, of the civil liberties union, believes there is cause for concern for Orthodox Jews and for New Yorkers in general. "I think for particular communities and for people who are just passing through communities, the more cameras that are deployed the more potential there is to create a permanent record of people's daily lives, and just submit New Yorkers writ large to constant surveillance."
Yeger thinks the civil rights concerns are overstated: "The constitution does not ban surveillance cameras from being placed in public places. Cameras provide a necessary tool to combat violence in this city."
"If I can't get a cop on every corner, I'll take a camera on every corner," he said.