Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Crown Heights Gag Order Creates Controversy

  The new "don't snitch" edict from the rabonim of Crown Heights has generated a lot of controversy, both within the community and in the world at large. Among other things, the order calls for people in the community not to publish reports in the media critical of police without prior permission from the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. It prohibits filing complaints against the police without prior permission from the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council.

It also prohibits publishing anything that could lead to investigation or other legal difficulties for a Crown Heights Jewish Community member. The text of the edict is not in dispute. It has been reproduced on and on Crown Heights.Info.

The letter raises a lot of questions. People have a long list of complaints about treatment of community members by police. In the age of the internet, anyone can publish news,opinion and rumours. Some people are responsible. Other people put up spur of the moment blogs that are riddled with profanity, anonymous and slanderous. A bit of googling will bring up some of these sites. There are prohibitions in Jewish law against gossiping and slander. People need to be reminded of such restrictions on speech.

Plenty of people have disputes that they settle out of court or in private arbitration. If every financial dispute, every slap and every shove ended up in court, the police would have no time to deal with serious crime.

Between Jews, there are laws from the Torah that govern disputes. Observant Jews should prefer to resolve their disagreements among themselves according to the Torah, in order that their studies have some connection to reality and in order to make the words of the Torah alive.

There are legitimate reasons to question the police. Many people feel that their crime reports have been mishandled, misclassified or "lost". If someone has a complaint against the police and they don't want to go the civilian Complaint Review Board, then they need an aggressive advocate.

If people are being asked to waive their constitutional rights to complain about law enforcement and governmental administration, there must be an effective substitute. Following are some proposals.

1. The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council should be able and willing to follow up crime reports to see that the reports get a complaint number, and that disputes about the incidents are classified correctly. Too often, members of our community have faced these issues alone.

2. Some people in our community do "mouth off" to police. We need to have seminars and articles on how to interact with police, as well as what our rights and responsibilities are.

3.If the CHJCC is to earn the respect of the community, it must advocate for the community and individuals in the community. If it is perceived as "managing" the community on behalf of the police, even when there is police misconduct, it will rightfully lose respect in the community.

4. We face the same problems with rising crime as our African American neighbours. Many criminals victimise not only Jews but our gentile neighbours as well. Crime in Crown Heights is anti Jewish because crime itself is against Judaism, whether the victim is a Jew or a gentile.

We need to create institutions and social structures that will accomodate and resolve the inevitable disputes that will occur in our community. The letter from the Crown Heights Beth Din seems to many people to be an awkward attempt to get this process going. In these tough economic times, we need to work together with the police, our gentile neighbours and each other, because even when money is short, we have each other.

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