Is it safe to step outside your home and walk the streets of Baltimore? The question has come to the fore following a number of violent crimes during the spring, and local Jewish institutions and community members are stepping up to help prevent crime and build a secure community.
The state of crime in Baltimore County and City
In Baltimore County, there is some good news when it comes to crime, said Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt, who is Jewish.
“In Baltimore County, overall, our Part 1 crime statistics are down this year compared to this time last year,” Hyatt said. “The first four months of the year, our robberies were down about 30%, aggravated assaults were down about 7%, burglaries were down approximately 22%, car thefts were down 8%.”
Others painted a gloomier picture.
“We just had a murder here in the neighborhood less than three weeks ago,” said Nathan Willner, general counsel for the Baltimore Shomrim Safety Patrol, on May 26, in reference to Efraim Gordon’s murder. Gordon, an Israeli, was visiting Baltimore on May 3 for a cousin’s wedding when he was killed. Willner also noted that recent weeks had seen a number of other violent crimes, including an armed robbery and a carjacking.
“While it’s not an everyday event that we have crimes of that magnitude, it’s definitely been concerning over the last several weeks, of an increase in violent crime in the neighborhood,” said Willner, who lives in Cheswolde.
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, also said the last several weeks have seen an increase in homicides and other types of crime.
“It’s certainly a challenging time for crime, particularly in Baltimore City,” Libit said. “I don’t think anyone would deny that.”
Willner primarily attributed the surge to the warming weather and receding pandemic, as both encourage residents to spend more time outside their homes, creating more opportunities for criminal behavior. He suspected that the crime rate may climb even higher with the arrival of summer.
Willner sees these recent events as part of a longer trend going back at least two decades.
Willner believes that the Jewish community is now more on edge and anxious. Residents are more cautious about walking alone or checking that their doors are locked.
“Every resident of Baltimore, as well as our visitors, should feel safe at home, at work, at play – at any time of the day or night,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-41) in an email. “That was not the case for the members of the community who were victimized by juveniles or more grievously, for Efraim Gordon, who was shot to death while here from Israel for a family wedding.”
Chief Hyatt leads county police
To help prevent crime in Baltimore County, county police patrol communities in squad cars, check in with local businesses and other residents and attend community meetings.
“Any opportunities that we have, whether it’s getting out at community meetings, spending time with groups of children to be able to start to build relationships with them, those are pieces that are really important towards making communities safe,” Hyatt said.
Hyatt is proud of the hard work her officers have done to reduce crime, despite the challenges of the previous year. She was most proud of the work that had been done to engage Baltimore County’s different communities and emphasized how both police and residents essentially share the same common goal.
“We all want the same thing,” Hyatt said. “We want our neighborhoods to be safe. We want them to be free of crime.”
Crime prevention at the Baltimore Jewish Council
The BJC regularly monitors and deals with issues of safety and security, Libit said, whether stemming from more run-of-the mill everyday crime, or crimes that specifically target the Jewish community. This includes the work of BJC Director of Security Keith Tiedemann, who works with local Jewish institutions on issues of security and safety, Libit said.
It also involves the BJC’s alert system, which communicates information on specific or general threats to the wider community via email, text and phone. In the past, the system has been used for potential emergencies such as bomb threats to the JCC or following the synagogue attack in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Additionally, the BJC commonly informs local Jewish institutions about security grant opportunities from the state and federal governments they could be eligible for, Libit said. This includes funding for security cameras, locks on doors and security guards.
Local volunteers patrol the streets
There is also space for volunteers to help out. The Northwest Citizens Patrol and the Baltimore Shomrim Safety Patrol are two organizations that routinely strive to keep the community safe.
The Shomrim operate a 24/7 hotline that community members can call for issues ranging from a child’s stolen bicycle to a missing person and other types of more serious issues, said Willner. If the situation requires, Shomrim volunteers will go to the location to make sure the caller and their family are safe. If need be, Shomrim volunteers can then provide law enforcement with extra eyes and ears and help to canvas the area.
“To a large extent, [a] lot of the work that Shomrim does is make sure that the caller is safe and that there’s a level of comfort that there are people that they can turn to that will help them through a situation that they are concerned about,” Willner said.
In the aftermath of a crime, the Shomrim often serve as a conduit between the community and law enforcement, Willner explained. This will often take the form of soliciting security camera footage from local businesses or homeowners.
“We found, early on, that the police-community relationship is critical to increasing safety in the neighborhood,” Willner said. “And that’s what we try to foster, is that relationship.”
Hyatt referred to neighbor-hood patrols like the Shomrim as “force multipliers,” accenting the work her officers are doing and making them more effective.
The Shomrim also assist by taking some of the work off the hands of police and 911 operators, Willner said, such as when a caller phones the Shomrim with a situation that is not a true emergency. This allows emergency responders to focus on other calls that could be more serious.
“Most of our members would rather remain private; they’re not looking for any sort of pat on the back or any sort of public accolades,” Willner said of the Shomrim volunteers. “All of them are just selfless volunteers that, 2 in the morning if they need to get up and go somewhere, they go, and they don’t ask too many questions. They just jump out of bed and go where the call is needed.”
Jewish Community Services guides those in need
While some groups work to deter current criminals, others take a more long-term approach. At Jewish Community Services, for example, staff have worked for many years to address the needs of young residents on dangerous paths and guide them in a better direction.
Some 30 years ago, while working for Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, Howard Reznick, senior manager of prevention and wellness at Jewish Community Services, found that the overwhelming majority of Jewish inmates in the Baltimore area were incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Typically, this meant that they were either intoxicated while committing a separate crime or that they were driven to criminal activity to finance their addictions, he said.
This led to Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters forming Jewish Addiction Services, both of which would be rolled into JCS in 2008.
“Often in adolescence, the folks who later develop the drug and alcohol issues, they felt uncomfortable in their own skin,” Reznick said.
This can be related to issues around body image, depression or anxiety disorders, not fitting in and experiences with non-consensual, inappropriate or sexual touching.
“When they have that first buzz, that first getting high, that first drink, it really soothed their nervousness about themselves. … Unfortunately, it’s a lousy medicine to take for those things ‘cause it has all those other problems with it,” Reznick said.
Today, JCS organizes programs at local private schools, such as the Bryn Mawr School, The Park School of Baltimore and Krieger Schechter Day School, to educate students about addiction and substance use.
“One of the sessions we usually do is called What Would You Do, where we use drama and roleplaying,” Reznick said. “And we bring to the kids typical situations in their culture they’re likely to encounter that year, the next year, the year after, whether it’s at a party or a particular kind of event, where they’re going to have to make choices, and so we work with decision making.”
Down the road
The root causes of crime include drug addiction, gangs and easy access to firearms, Libit said. Crime reduction can be achieved through improving public schools, supporting recreational centers and afterschool programs to keep children out of trouble, creating more opportunities to enroll in college and find jobs and improving relations between communities and police, he said.
As for Hyatt, she stressed the importance of strengthening the relationships between the Baltimore County Police Department and all of the communities that it serves, and of creating a Baltimore County where communities look out for one another.
“I would also like to see how it was when I grew up, where neighbors are looking out for other neighbors,” Hyatt said. “It’s going to be important as we continue to move forward and face whatever new challenges come up in the next five to 10 years, for our police department and our communities to work as closely together as possible.”