standard Calm but Cautious Following Spate of Crown Heights Attacks

Eli Cohen of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Eli Cohen of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council (Photo by Matthew Taub)

While still apprehensive after a recent spate of attacks, Crown Heights community leaders are reassured by a consistently prompt and thorough response from the NYPD and coordination among various groups to champion safety and calm.

When dozens of teens vandalized a Troy Avenue store several weeks ago, the NYPD immediately canvassed nearby schools and talked to administrators, sending a message that they were on the lookout for the suspects involved. Just a few days later, three men attacked a woman on Franklin Avenue, but two were quickly arrested while the third, though still at large, is known to police and the public. And on Wednesday, a young girl was attacked as part of a misguided new “game” on Eastern Parkway, but Shomrim cooperated with police to immediately locate a suspect and reprimand her in front of her parents.

“The important thing to put it in context is that we’re not dealing with the crazy, totally unsafe streets of the eighties,” said Rabbi Eli Cohen of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. “This seems to be mostly young people. While any incident is troubling, the police have been very helpful in their response.”

Cohen mentioned how most incidents can now be reviewed with video footage and photographic evidence, and that deep ties between what were once disparate ethnic and religious groups have helped to coordinate a constructive response to stamp out incendiary retaliations. Meanwhile, the “hate crime” designation, while often called for following any incident, is only used when the NYPD deems it absolutely appropriate.

“Is an attacker specifically focusing on a person because they’re Jewish or some other race than they are? Sometimes there are indications of that, sometimes not,” Cohen explained. “The police have very clear criteria of what constitutes a hate crime, and while they will not hesitate to assign such a label, they will also not automatically apply it.”

An example was the recent vandalism of the gourmet kosher grocery store on Troy Avenue, which was ultimately not designated as anything more than a random attack. And while there has been much talk recently about hate crimes stemming from anti-Semitism, those charged with and targeted by hate crimes can of course come from any background. This past September, two Jewish men were charged with a hate crime for attacking an African-American man who was walking his dog in Crown Heights.

Rabbi Cohen said his Council was comfortable with the lack of such a designation in the case of the Troy avenue store, though he mentioned some other incidents with different criteria, where they were still pushing the NYPD for such a designation. Still, for the most part, the Council “defers to the NYPD’s judgment,” he said.

“The NYPD has done a great job making rounds and taking everyone’s concerns seriously,” Cohen said. “The message that ‘this will not be tolerated’ has absolutely been communicated.”

But a few other incidents also remain unresolved, and for some, continue to be unsettling. Just last week, a 12-year-old girl was the victim of a random assault on Kingston Avenue. Over the summer, two assaults in rapid succession against Jewish residents raised suspicion of a hate crime and continuation of the “knockout” game that first sparked fears of random antisemitic attacks in late 2013.

Cohen admitted that such incidents were “still on people’s radar screens” and while residents were very aware of continuing issues, there was also reassurance that the police were actively working on identifying the perpetrators involved.

“The officers in the Department of Community Affairs are the unsung heroes of the NYPD,” Cohen said. “With a mixed race community like we have here, they’ve done a lot of the legwork of enabling cross-cultural relationships, and enhancing them.”

The outgrowth of such collaborative efforts includes organizations such as Mothers-To-Mothers, Project CARE, the Crown Heights Leadership Council and the  Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, which came into existence following the riot of 1991. The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, formed in 1969, actively works with these organizations to keep lines of communication open and coordinate an effective response to keep tempers cool.

As an example, Cohen mentioned how, in response to a previous anti-Jewish attack, a group of African American community leaders including State Senate Candidate Jesse Hamilton coordinated their own press conference to immediately denounce the incident.

“The majority of residents from all backgrounds are decent people in the community, and they get it,” Cohen explained. “Everyone in this community has the same aspirations. They want safe streets, they want order. And we’re all working for that together.”