Esther Kletzky, the mother of Leiby, first call was not to the police, frantic and worried after her child went missing her first call was to the Boro Park Shomrim, the local neighborhoods Jewish volunteer patrol.
About 45 minutes after her 8-year-old son failed to show up at a book store where he was supposed to meet his family, Esther Kletzky called the local authorities.
In most neighborhoods, that would mean dialing the police.
But for many in Brooklyn, like Ms. Kletzky and others in Orthodox Jewish communities, that first call for help is often to the local civilian patrol.
Ms. Kletzky contacted the Brooklyn South Shomrim Safety Patrol at 6:14 p.m. Monday, and they began searching for her son, Leiby. Eventually, the Brooklyn South Shomrim called for assistance—from the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol.
The boy’s father, Nachman Kletzsky, did not contact the New York Police Department until 8:30 p.m., nearly three hours after Leiby left a day camp by himself, got lost and, police said, encountered the man who would abduct and murder him.
Leiby’s remains were found early Wednesday; 35-year-old Levi Aron, who did not know the boy, was charged in his murder. On Friday, a note was posted outside the Kletzkys’ Borough Park home thanking “all from around the world, who had us in their thoughts and prayers.”
Asked this week if the delay in calling police might have made a difference in finding the boy earlier, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “in this particular case, I don’t see anything that could have been done with a quicker notification.”
Still, Mr. Kelly said, “make no mistake about it: We want to be notified right away. We don’t think it’s a good idea to lag in notification to the police.”
The case—which has garnered worldwide attention—represents one of the more stark examples of the complicated push-pull between the NYPD and the city’s four shomrim safety patrols.
The first shomrim, a word derived from the Hebrew word for “guard,” was established in Brooklyn in the early 1980s. There are also patrols in Williamsburg and Crown Heights.
Leaders say the volunteer groups act as extra sets of eyes and ears for the NYPD, and sometimes more. Last month, the Williamsburg shomrim followed a man suspected of attacking a rabbi and held him for police. In April, volunteers from the Flatbush shomrim followed an armed robbery suspect and called police.
There is, however, suspicion among NYPD ranks that the patrols do not report every crime to police in an attempt, some officials believe, to protect members of their own community.
There have been allegations of shomrim volunteers using excessive force, especially with outsiders. Crown Heights Shomrim member Josef Prus was convicted of assault charges in a 1996 incident in which he repeatedly hit a man over the head with his walkie-talkie after the man was subdued.
“We are businessmen, we’re husbands, we’re fathers, we’re grandfathers,” said Bob Moscovitz, the coordinator of the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol. “We’re not vigilantes. We’re out there taking care of our community.”
Jacob Daskal, coordinator for the Brooklyn South Shomrim, said the group reported Leiby’s disappearance to the NYPD around 8:30 p.m. on Monday. Police officials could not confirm that account Friday but said the first 911 call about the missing boy was from his father.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” said Mr. Daskal, who founded the patrol 26 years ago. “And the police wouldn’t have come right away.”
Mr. Kelly acknowledged the delicate relationship this week when he said delays in notifying police “is a long-standing issue” with the shomrim.
He quickly added, “but we also understand that certain members of the community have confidence in shomrim and they go to them first. We’d like them [shomrim] to also come to us when they receive reports of crime and certainly missing children and that sort of thing.”
Some of the shomrim have patrol cars that look like NYPD cars, complete with the agency’s CPR—Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect—emblem on the side. But most of the members are unpaid volunteers who often use their own vehicles to patrol. Mr. Daskal said volunteers are thoroughly vetted, and fingerprints are sent to the NYPD to check for criminal records.
“We are not affiliated,” Mr. Moscovitz said. “We all serve the communities, but we all have our own protocols. We all do our own things.”
However, when it comes to a high-profile cases, the shomrim often combine forces.
The Flatbush shomrim has what Mr. Moscovitz called a “state-of-the-art” command center with fax machines, computers and printer and gets pressed into service at many emergencies in Orthodox Jewish communities in the other parts of the city and upstate, he said.
Mr. Moscovitz and Mr. Daskal said that when they receive a report of an obvious crime or serious incident, they call police immediately.
“I would prefer they call 911 first,” Mr. Daskal said. “We are not the police. We can be their eyes and ears and help them out, but we are not the police.”
In the case of Leiby’s disappearance, thousands of volunteers swept his neighborhood nearly non-stop for almost two days.
Because the shomrim answer every call and respond quickly, and because they are comprised of members of the tight-knit neighborhoods, they’ve gained trust.
“They [NYPD] are doing a great job…but if they see a suspicious person they can’t follow them for four or five hours like we do,” Mr. Daskal said.
Rachel, a 38-year-old Borough Park woman who would not provide her last name, said when the shomrim patrol is called, “they come flying. They’ll get the guy, and they’ll hold him until police come.”
Abe Moskowitz of Borough Park, said this winter, when he called the safety patrol and police about vandals, only the shomrim showed up. “Sometimes the police ignore you,” he said. “I called the shomrim and they got there right away.”
Mr. Moscovitz, of the Flatbush safety patrol, said Leiby’s disappearance and murder is not likely to change accepted protocols in their communities.
“People will call the police department when they feel comfortable calling the police department and will call us when they feel comfortable calling us,” he said.