City Councilmember Steve Levin, who is a member of that body’s Progressive Caucus and an LGBTQ community supporter, has given at least $64,500 in Council discretionary funds to a Brooklyn community patrol that attacked a gay African-American man in Williamsburg in 2013, leaving the man blind in one eye.
Levin, who was first elected to the City Council in 2009 and is now serving his third term having benefited from the one-time change to the city’s two-term limit, represents a district that includes Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods.
In Williamsburg, the large Orthodox Jewish community is ostensibly protected by the Shmira Volunteer Patrol, which also uses the name Williamsburg Safety Patrol. In December 2013, Shmira members set upon Taj Patterson, now 28, when he was observed walking in the street on Flushing Avenue in Williamsburg. He suffered a broken eye socket, bruises, abrasions, and was left blind in one eye. No charges were ever filed against Patterson.
This patrol and others serving Orthodox Jewish communities say that they merely detain criminal suspects until police arrive. Witnesses to the attack who testified in the trial of one patrol member described a mob of roughly 20 men. Videos showed the men racing in cars to the site of the attack at roughly the same time.
Pinchas Braver and Abraham Winkler pleaded guilty to unlawful imprisonment in the attack. Charges against Aharon Hollender and Joseph Fried were dropped. Mayer Herskovic refused a deal and his non-jury trial took place in 2016 before Judge Danny Chun in Brooklyn Supreme Court. He faced multiple counts of unlawful imprisonment, assault, gang assault, and menacing.
Herskovic was convicted because his DNA was found on Patterson’s sneaker that had been pulled from his foot by the same man who jabbed a thumb in his eye and kicked him in the face, Patterson testified during the trial. That man took the sneaker and tossed it on to a nearby roof where police recovered it six days after the attack. Herskovic was sentenced to four years in prison in 2017, but was allowed to remain free while he appealed.
Last year, a state appeals court found that the evidence at trial was “legally sufficient to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” but after using its “independent factual review power, we conclude that the verdict of guilt was against the weight of the evidence.”
The conviction was reversed and Herskovic’s indictment was dismissed. The issue was that the DNA sample was small and tested using high sensitivity DNA testing. It was also a mix of Patterson’s DNA and Herskovic’s DNA. The result was that the ratio that expresses the confidence that the DNA belongs to a particular person was lower than what is usually found with larger and unmixed samples.
Patterson has filed lawsuits in state and federal court against the patrol, individual members of the patrol, and the city. The federal case has been dismissed though Patterson has appealed that dismissal. The state lawsuit is ongoing.
Levin first supported the patrol with $9,000 in the city’s 2011 fiscal year. Since then he has given the patrol $15,000 in 2016, $16,500 in 2017, $12,000 in 2018, and $12,000 in the 2019 fiscal year.
In a motion filed last year in federal court by the city’s Law Department, the city said, “It is beyond dispute that plaintiff-appellant Taj Patterson was the victim of a horrific hate crime perpetrated by a vigilante group, and is entitled to justice.”
The city’s motion said the patrol was a “hate-filled mob” that decided “to illegally attack an innocent victim while cloaked in the dark of night,” that the attackers were acting on a “sadistic urge to violently beat Taj Patterson,” and that the attackers knew “that their conduct was illegal.”
The city also said that Patterson’s attackers “allegedly belonged” to “an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood safety patrol.”
Citing a statement issued by the patrol in 2014, Levin wrote in an email that only one of the five men who faced criminal charges, Winkler, was a patrol member and that he was expelled from the patrol in 2014.
“The assault on Mr. Patterson is incredibly serious and I firmly believe that anyone who took part in the assault must face the consequences,” Levin wrote in an email. “That said, I have not seen evidence that Williamsburg Safety Patrol, as an organization, took part in or condoned the assault on Mr. Patterson nor have I seen evidence that they have protected any of their volunteers from investigation or prosecution. In fact, they moved to remove one of their volunteers, Mr. Winkler, when he was charged with taking part in the assault.”
Andrew Stoll, Patterson’s attorney, suggested in an email that Levin should just pay the money to his client.
“Since [the patrol doesn’t] even carry insurance to cover the mayhem in their wake, maybe he should just make that check out to Taj Patterson instead,” Stoll wrote. “But then again, Taj Patterson doesn’t have a truckload of wealthy campaign donors, and I doubt Councilmember Levin would attend Taj’s wedding, as he did the wedding of Joseph Fried, who was arrested and charged with assaulting Taj, and who was being prosecuted at the time of the wedding and charged with criminal contempt of court on allegations he illegally photographed a sex abuse victim at the trial of Nechmya Weberman, a Satmar counselor who is now serving a 50-year sentence.”