Mission Division's Operation Ceasefire takes aim at gang gun violence
by Kelly Goff
Sixteen known gang members sat politely in a conference room at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery one night last week, listening to, among others, a police captain, a deputy district attorney, a pastor and a shooting victim.
All had the same message: Stop shooting.
The meeting was part of Operation Ceasefire, a five-year pilot program at the Los Angeles Police Department's Mission Division started in 2011 and targeted at lowering gang violence in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
Gang members on parole are “invited” — with the threat of a parole violation if they fail to attend — to community meetings to hear the ways law enforcement is cracking down on their gangs and meet community members and programs that can help them leave gang life behind.
“What we're saying to them is that we know they have a propensity toward violence, or to be hurt by violence, and we're not putting up with it,” said Capt. Todd Chamberlain, who heads the division.
The parolees are then asked to take the message back to their gangs.
“Consider this a gift,” Karl Cruz, a senior pastor at Victory Outreach in Sylmar, told the group, recounting how he himself left a gang more than 20 years ago — and changed his life forever. “In my time, they were just locking people up, not trying to help them.”
Part shock and awe, part outreach, the program is modeled on dozens of similar operations around the country. It is the second attempt at this type of program in Los Angeles. The first was launched at the Hollenbeck Division in the 1990s and didn't bring in anti-gang efforts such as job placement and tattoo removal,
Advocates say this latest version is working precisely because of those service components. “I won't get a lot of response at the meetings,” said Christian Diance, who works at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center's tattoo removal program. “But I hand out the information to their mothers, aunts, girlfriends and others who attend with them, then a few days later, we start getting phone calls.”
There's even talk of rolling out the program to other LAPD divisions.
Some two and a half years into the program, however, results are mixed.
Mission Division homicide numbers have remained static — seven in each of the last two years.
Still, other benchmarks show a marked improvement in neighborhood safety. This year to date, there has been a 38 percent reduction in shots fired in the area as a whole and a 58 percent drop in shootings involving gang members, either as victims or suspects.
Since 2011, when the program was launched, there has been a 58 percent reduction in shots fired and a 71 percent reduction in shootings involving gang members.
Of course, the Operation Ceasefire meetings aren't solely responsible for the lower rate of gun crimes in the Northeast Valley, where gang membership continues to flourish and feuds between rivals can have deadly consequences.
There has been increased enforcement for gang members, especially in the shadow of a violent incident. In Oct. 2011, after a spate of shootings, police descended on the Blythe Street gang, searched 79 locations for parole violations and arrested 12 people.
Blythe Street is one of three gangs in the area operating under a gang injunction — a court order that limits the movements of members through curfews and other restrictions on when and where they can interact with one another. It also gives police and the District Attorney's Office greater leeway in making arrests and prosecuting violations.
In September, members of the Columbus Street gang were served with notice of a new injunction aimed at the group.
Together, the efforts are working.
“It's a tool in the toolbox — it's a component,” Chamberlain, who heads Mission Division. “Could that be from Ceasefire? Could that be from the injunctions?
“Probably all of it. We're being very proactive and bringing all of it. We're implementing these things to the full tilt. When crime is down, it's about maintenance.”
U.S. Accuses 2 Rabbis of Kidnapping Husbands for a Fee
by JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN and MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
In Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, Mendel Epstein made a name for himself as the rabbi to see for women struggling to divorce their husbands. Among the Orthodox, a divorce requires the husband's permission, known as a “get,” and tales abound of women whose husbands refuse to consent.
While it's common for rabbis to take action against defiant husbands, such as barring them from synagogue life, Rabbi Epstein, 68, took matters much further, according to the authorities.
For hefty fees, he orchestrated the kidnapping and torture of reluctant husbands, charging their wives as much as $10,000 for a rabbinical decree permitting violence and $50,000 to hire others to carry out the deed, according to federal charges unsealed on Thursday morning.
Rabbi Epstein, along with another rabbi, Martin Wolmark, who is the head of a yeshiva, as well as several men in what the authorities called the “kidnap team,” appeared in Federal District Court in Trenton after a sting operation in which an undercover federal agent posed as an Orthodox Jewish woman soliciting Rabbi Epstein's services.
Paul Fishman, the United States attorney for New Jersey, said in an interview that investigators have “uncovered evidence” of about a couple dozen victims. Many are men from Brooklyn who were taken to New Jersey as part of the kidnappings.
In court, the lead prosecutor in the case, R. Joseph Gribko, explained how the abductions were carried out. “They beat them up, tied them up, shocked them with Tasers and stun guns until they got what they want,” Mr. Gribko, an assistant United States attorney, said.
Mr. Gribko said the defendants had been motivated by money, not faith. While the case might surprise some New Yorkers, accounts of such kidnappings have percolated through the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn for years. In 1996, for instance, a rabbinic council in Williamsburg issued a statement denouncing the rogue men who subjected husbands to such beatings, according to a news report.
Rabbi Epstein was sued in the late 1990s by another Brooklyn rabbi, Abraham Rubin, who claimed that a group of men shoved him into a van as he left synagogue, hooded him, and applied electric shocks to his genitals in an effort to force him to provide a get to his wife. The lawsuit was dismissed.
According to newspaper accounts from the late 90s, other men, too, have come forward with similar tales of curbside abductions and mistreatment.
How such violent practices, if proved, would have been able to persist for so long may be an indicator of the challenges that local law enforcement agencies face in trying conduct investigations of insular religious groups including the ultra-Orthodox.
Rabbi Epstein seemed confident that local authorities wouldn't investigate too closely. In a recorded meeting with the female undercover F.B.I. agent, Rabbi Epstein explained that his preferred torture techniques, like electric shocks, offered little physical evidence of abuse, according to the complaint. Without obvious visible injuries, Rabbi Epstein said, the police were unlikely to inquire too deeply if any victims came forward.
“Basically the reaction of the police is, if the guy does not have a mark on him then, uh, is there some Jewish crazy affair here, they don't want to get involved,” Rabbi Epstein explained, according to the criminal complaint.
Rabbi Epstein made his living appearing before the rabbinical courts, known as beit din, where he advocated on behalf of a spouse seeking an exit, another rabbi said. He took a special interest in the constraints that wives faced, speaking about the rights of women in terms not often heard in his deeply conservative community.
When two undercover F.B.I. agents — one posing as a woman seeking a divorce, the other as her brother — asked a rabbi for help, the rabbi explained how Rabbi Epstein might be able to assist them.
“You need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end,” Rabbi Martin Wolmark, a respected figure who presides over a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., said in a recorded telephone call on Aug. 7. He described Rabbi Epstein as “a hired hand” who could help, according to the criminal complaint in the case.
When the undercover agents met with Rabbi Epstein a week later, he said that he was confident he could secure a get once his “tough guys” had made their threats.
“I guarantee you that if you're in the van, you'd give a get to your wife,” he said to the male undercover agent posing as the brother. “You probably love your wife, but you'd give a get when they finish with you.”
The undercover female F.B.I. agent told Rabbi Epstein that she wanted to divorce her husband, described as a businessman in South America, who refused to grant her request. Rabbi Epstein urged her to lure the man to New Jersey, which she pledged to do.
Next Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Wolmark convened their own rabbinical court, complete with legalisms and formalities, to issue a religious edict “authorizing the use of violence to obtain a forced get,” according to court records. The undercover agent offered testimony before the two rabbis, who were joined by other religious figures.
Told that the husband was arriving in New Jersey, eight of Rabbi Epstein's associates met at a New Jersey warehouse to finalize the kidnapping plan, according to court documents. At that point F.B.I. agents moved in to arrest the group. The agents seized masks, ropes, scalpels and feather quills and ink bottles used for recording the get they anticipated.
On Thursday, the 10 defendants were denied bail after appearing in court in Trenton on the kidnapping conspiracy charges.
Juda J. Epstein, the lawyer for Rabbi Epstein, declined to comment.
A neighbor, Rose Davis, who lives opposite his home in the Kensington section of Brooklyn described him as a respected figure. Ms. Davis said she was skeptical of the charges, and suggested they might be the concoctions of enemies he had made as an expert in divorce work: “There's always a loser,” she said, referring to divorce cases.
Crime on decline in Elm City
by Amanda Buckingham
Crime is on the decline in Elm City — since the end of 2011, homicides and shooting incidents have fallen by nearly 50 percent.
According to new data released late last week by the New Haven Police Department, homicides in the Elm city dropped 46.2 percent during the January-October period from 2011 to 2013. During the same time span, the incidence of nonfatal shooting victims fell by 49 percent, and the number of shots fired fell by 44.1 percent. Experts interviewed said the marked decline in crime is likely due to several major factors, including effective leadership within the New Haven Police Department, an increase in police presence and a community-oriented focus.
“My marching orders from the mayor and the Board of Aldermen [were] to focus on the violence and to bring community policing back to every neighborhood of this city,” said New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman. “And that's what we've been working very hard on now for the past two years.”
Since he was appointed police chief in November 2011, Esserman has reinstated a community-policing strategy, requiring new officers to spend their first year on the job walking a beat in one of New Haven's neighborhoods.
The community-policing strategy aims to familiarize different neighborhoods with their dedicated officers, in the hopes that neighborhood residents would feel comfortable approaching an officer they trust to report situations that can potentially escalate into crimes. To that end, the police department has also increased the amount of block watches and is expanding the Police Athletic League Camp, a summer camp for New Haven children. These initiatives are meant to humanize officers, Esserman said.
“The police are there to support the community and help empower the community to solve their [own] problems,” Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen '04 said.
Other partnerships have also played a role in decreasing crime. On a macroscopic level, the New Haven Police Department works closely with departments on the state level, such as that of corrections, probation, and parole. Within the city of New Haven, Esserman cited bonds with schools, clergy and the Yale Child Study Center as essential in combatting crime.
Esserman stressed that his collaboration with the Yale Police Department is especially significant in his department's overall strategy. Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins told the News in an email that the Yale Police Department's participation in weekly NHPD CompStat meetings further unites the two departments.
“The Yale Department is absolutely one of our strongest partners — we are joined at the hip,” Esserman said.
Budget and policy have also positively affected the New Haven Police Department. Hausladen said that after the spike in homicides in 2011, the Board of Aldermen focused extensively on incorporating public safety issues in its legislative agenda.
While crime as a whole declined, the cases of motor vehicle theft have significantly increased in the past year. Esserman attributed this spike in part to expensive possessions that might be within the cars, such as cell phones and computers. To combat this issue, the New Haven Police Department has undergone a series of successful raids of stolen electronic goods.
“We really have a long way to go,” Esserman said. “The last thing we believe in in the New Haven police is patting ourselves on the back or resting on our laurels.”
To that end, Andrew Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale, suggests a two-pronged approach to curtailing crime. According to Papachristos, long-term crime reduction strategies include community interventions, such as combating issues with the current education system, employment opportunities and prison re-entry. In the short-term, he cites the merit of efforts such as Project Longevity, which seeks to reduce gang-related violence through close monitoring of gang activity.
“I think a lot of the strategies that we see as promising in cities including New Haven are [those] that tend to focus on intervention and prevention efforts,” Papachristos said.
While Papachristos noted general declining trend in violent crime, he cautioned against an over-reliance on statistics to reflect current conditions in New Haven. But Esserman emphasized that, no matter the current fluctuations in crime rates, each individual crime is still significant.
“I know well that behind every one of those statistics is a story — behind every one of those numbers on that chart is a name. And I know their names,” Esserman said. “And I know to a mother those statistics and those numbers mean nothing.”
The New Haven Police Department has hired 68 officers over the past 18 months and plans to hire around 100 officers in 2014.