Law and Order

By Lawrence Goodman / January/February 2009
January 7th, 2009
In June 2007 three teenagers followed Eliezer Greer's brother Dov to his home in New Haven, Conn., and beat him. A few days later, in the same Edgewood Park neighborhood, someone shot a man in a park; after stumbling around briefly, the man fell to the street and died. Elsewhere in the city on that day, another man was gunned down, bringing the total number of murders in that city to four over the past month. It was at this point that Greer decided to start carrying a gun.

For the next six months, he and two dozen armed volunteers patrolled the neighborhood. The Edgewood Park Defense Patrol, as it was known, went out every night, phoning the police whenever they spotted something suspicious, such as drug dealers, prostitutes, or gangs of kids assembling on street corners. The volunteers quickly became a focus of controversy. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. called the patrols a "recipe for disaster," but since Greer had a state license to carry a concealed weapon, the city was powerless to stop him.

Five months later, without any member ever having to pull out a gun, Greer and his squad had achieved two objectives: the police chief was gone, and the city had begun implementing a system of neighborhood policing. Greer says that he then decided to stop carrying a weapon, but the civilian volunteers, some of them still armed, continue patrolling today.

Does Greer believe his patrols should be replicated elsewhere? "I would unequivocally say, yes, other neighborhoods should copy what we did," he says. "There was no law and order in New Haven. We had to put our own people on the street." He believes the armed patrols were a key reason crime in Edgewood Park had dropped more than 20 percent by the end of 2007.

A New Haven native, Greer majored in political science at Brown, then returned to his hometown to work as a community activist alongside his father, Rabbi Daniel Greer, an Orthodox Jew who founded the Yeshiva of New Haven. Over the last 20 years, Rabbi Greer has run several nonprofit groups that have bought up and renovated homes in the Edgewood neighborhood. When Eliezer Greer was a child, the area, which lies in the shadow of Yale, was considered a slum. In recent years it has improved significantly, benefiting from a 50 percent citywide drop in crime in the past two decades.

But then came 2006. That year New Haven logged 24 murders, the highest number in more than a decade and a 60 percent jump over the previous year. Over the course of the year, Greer says he went six times to speak with the police chief, but was unable to obtain a meaningful promise of beefed-up patrols in Edgewood. Then, a teenager who was being chased and shot at by another group of kids lost control of his car and drove it into Rabbi Greer's house. In October 2006, Eliezer Greer issued an ultimatum: unless the police policy changed dramatically, he would start an armed patrol. "The thinking behind it was not to use the weapons," says Greer. "It was a preventive measure, like when you put your seatbelt on in a car. You don't expect to get into a crash, but you do it as a precaution."

Greer's patrolling uniform consists of a yarmulke; a jersey with traditional tzitzit, or fringes, on its four corners; and a black t-shirt with Edgewood Park Defense Patrol printed on the back. There were other devout Jews in the patrol, but Greer said he also made sure to include Hispanics, women, and African Americans. "We've been very careful involving Jews and non-Jews," says Greer. "It's neighborhood patrol, not individual against individual." The local NAACP chapter spoke out against it, but several black religious leaders voiced strong support for the group.

Despite new leadership in the New Haven police department and a planned crackdown on gangs and truancy, Greer says he sees no reason to stop the patrols. "You can either be standoffish and ignore the problems in your neighborhood, or you can go and do something," Greer says. "I choose to do something."


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January/February 2009