Crime has hit historic lows in Queens.

No, I’m not talking about crime rates, which are actually way up in most categories, thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Democrat leadership’s backward policies.

It’s the nature and manner of crimes committed that have hit record lows: Now thugs are stealing charity boxes in broad daylight. Literally. And with new “criminal justice” reforms looming, there’s less and less that police can do to stop them.

The Crime

On Thursday, November 7, at around 12 noon, Flushing business owners along Main Street from around 67th to 73rd Avenues were hit with a string of robberies. The perpetrators weren’t up to your run-of-the-mill register cash-grab, armed stick-up, or even late-night break-in. Instead they went for tz’dakah boxes.

A group of young men in their late teens were captured on at least four closed-circuit security cameras grabbing the collection boxes from the counters of a string of Jewish-owned restaurants and shops. They moved northward on Main Street, hitting Main Street Optical, Holy Schnitzel, Pizza Professor, Shalom Pharmacy, and Vital Med Pharmacy, as well as other stores whose owners asked not to be named. The thugs also tried to swipe pushkas at Soysauce, Elite Café, and Benjy’s Pizza, but workers at those shops caught on before the thieves could make off with the boxes.

Eddie of Main Street Optical recounted the sequence of events. “I dialed 911 and the police arrived immediately, as they were already on the scene responding to similar calls from my neighbors. The police stopped two of them (one at the gas station, and one across the street) and held them for questioning for a good ten to 15 minutes. After that, he put them on a bus to Hillcrest High School. When I asked, “Is that it? You’re letting them go?” he said, “Thank G-d nobody got hurt.’”

When they realized that they had been robbed, a number of owners called 911. One of the three suspects, who was carrying the stolen boxes in his backpack, was able to flee police and avoid questioning. The other two were detained on the scene for questioning for 20 to 30 minutes. Though multiple owners presented police with clear video evidence of the suspects committing the crimes, and others presented eyewitness corroboration, the police were forced to release the men after determining that they were under 18 years of age. Officers ushered them onto a public bus back to Hillcrest High School, whose classes they had cut to commit the spree. Officers apparently discouraged some of the victims from filing police reports, citing the non-violent nature of the crimes and the juvenile status of the suspects.

The charities hit in the spree included Chickens for Shabbos, a group that provides free meals to hungry families; Chazaq, which runs food pantries, after-school programs, and Sunday schools; Hatzalah, which uses donations to purchase and maintain life-saving emergency equipment and vehicles; and Shaare Tefilah, which provides the community with various financial, educational, and spiritual services. The boxes usually receive change and small bills from customers and are collected every week or two, so it’s impossible to know exactly how much money was inside each box; but those involved guess the value to be somewhere between $20 and $100 per pushka. Around ten pushkas were stolen.

This Wasn’t the First Time –
and None of the Previous Incidents Resulted in Charges, Either

For many of the business owners hit, the Main Street tz’dakah heist is just the latest – and most egregious – in a string of petty to moderate theft or burglary incidents in the last few years alone. Though most of the incidents were recorded on video, which clearly showed the suspects committing the crimes, not a single one of the incidents resulted in criminal charges.

Soysauce owner Gavriel recounted an incident three years ago when a man was caught on camera stealing pushkas. He called 911 that afternoon but police never arrived. Two years ago, another man stole the tip jar from the front counter. Gavriel called 911, filed a police report, and gave police the footage, which showed the suspect getting into a truck with a clearly visible license plate number and Long Island City address, but a day later the city closed the case citing “all leads exhausted.”

Aaron Epstein’s Pizza Professor has been robbed a number of times in just the last year or so. A few months prior to the tz’dakah box theft this month, burglars broke in through the ceiling of his restaurant. He caught them on surveillance footage trying for hours, albeit unsuccessfully, to break into his ATM machine. They caused a huge amount of physical damage, which was only partially covered by insurance, and made off with all the cash from the register and safe.

Last month a group of 15 to 20 teens ransacked Aaron’s storage facility outside of Pizza Professor – in broad daylight – and made off with $150 of merchandise. In another recent incident, a thief posing as a customer stole Epstein’s Air Pods case (valued at around $100) off the cash-and-wrap, as Epstein was ringing up the suspect’s order. “That one really shocked me,” he said. “I had given him ten percent off his order and thrown in a free drink – as I often do, to make non-kosher customers feel welcome. And he stole the thing right in front of my face.”

All of these hits against Epstein’s store were recorded on surveillance footage, which showed the suspects’ faces in clear detail as they committed the crimes. Still, after the raid on his storage facility, police handling the case told Epstein that there was not much they could do, as the suspects were minors, and referred Epstein to the boys’ principal at John Bowne High School. “I got the runaround. The cops can’t even do anything unless the crime is serious, like assault.”

Even the charity organizations whose boxes were targeted said theft is now “a recurring thing” for them, and that pushkas had been reported stolen a number of times in the last year or so.

Holy Schnitzel was also robbed a year ago, as was Shalom Pharmacy. According to a Shalom employee, “We already went through this five months ago. We got robbed, the suspects were caught, and the suspects were released” without charges. “I identified one of them and the police said they’d be in touch, but we’ve heard nothing.”

Democrats Blame Cops Instead of Perps,
but Their Own Legislation Is to Blame

When asked why none of these thefts, which were committed in broad daylight and recorded on surveillance video that clearly identified the suspects, have resulted in charges, many Democrat lawmakers are eager to blame police.

According to Councilman Rory Lancman of District 24, who chairs the council’s Committee on the Justice System, “There’s nothing in the [new] laws that blocks police from investigating and arresting people who are committing crimes.” He continued, “If the police department is either too lazy to investigate crimes or want to politicize their opposition to criminal justice reform and falsely tell people that their hands are tied, that’s on the police department... and we are seeing that. Rather than doing the job and investigating and dealing with individuals who commit these low-level offenses, we have unfortunately some police officers who think that’s an opportunity to say they’re not able to enforce the law… and that’s completely false.”

He continued, “The binary choice to ‘lock them up or let them go’ is a false choice.”

And at first glimpse, it might be tempting to pile on with this finger-pointing. People might indeed wonder why the police “aren’t doing their jobs.”

But there’s a very good reason why police aren’t doing their jobs to the best of their ability, and that’s because they’re not being allowed to do their jobs at all.

Bill de Blasio came into office in 2014 vowing to “reform the criminal justice system.” By his and other Democrats’ estimation, the disproportionately high incarceration rates of black and brown people in New York City reflect a combination of racist over-policing and an overly-punitive criminal justice system. In other words, their reform efforts focus on cutting the legal repercussions for crimes, rather than cutting crime rates.

The newest phase of this effort was a controversial City Council vote in November to close Rikers Island and construct four smaller, borough-based prisons in its place. The move would cut New York City’s jail population by 50 percent, forcing the release of over 7,000 people awaiting trial on serious crimes like robbery, burglary, vandalism, and smuggling.

The result of this push for mass de-incarceration is, and must be, that people suspected of, or charged with, committing crimes are allowed to roam free while awaiting trial. But another, less obvious effect is the pressure it puts on police officers to underreport “low-level” or non-violent crime. As the city soon won’t have the space to hold its current population of inmates, the trend must be to reduce the number of arrests and charges by about half to accommodate the reduced jail capacities.

It’s not only an issue of de-incarceration, though. Police are also under the tremendous pressure of public scrutiny, with the national media and federal leadership promoting the myth of racist policing for at least eleven years. President Barak Obama spent his entire eight years in office nodding at the Black Lives Matter movement, and now de Blasio has taken things even further. All this despite a preponderance of statistical evidence disproving the myth that cops shoot black men at a disproportionately high rate to white men. On his website, Councilman Lancman cites “the bias…evident in their policing tactics.”

Knowing that the public narrative – as well as political rhetoric – that paint cops as racist bullies out to get people of color, police are concerned that even legitimate arrests they make against suspects who happen to be black or brown could be used to publicly shame them or get them fired. “When you arrive on the scene, the first thing people do when you arrive on the scene is pull out a phone camera and start recording you. We’re always under scrutiny. Officers are shying away from getting involved in petty crimes, because it’s just not worth the risk. And they want us to have even less interaction with people.”

A senior detective within the NYPD speaking on background explained that “you learn early on that you can only do your job and that what happens in the justice system is out of your control. But the ones who are going to end up paying for this are the people of New York.”

“What happened to the rights of the victims? They’re more concerned with the rights of the perpetrators.”

Beyond mass de-incarceration and the effort to reduce arrests and charges on black and brown suspects, the Democrat leadership’s criminal justice reform also focuses on juveniles. Laws passed earlier in de Blasio’s tenure mandated that people under 18 who commit crimes must be processed through the family court system instead of the criminal justice system. But this change means that offending teenagers cannot be incarcerated, and thus face little to no punishment for crimes they may commit.

They also changed the discovery rules on evidence – to now supply evidence to defense lawyers long before trial and to see the evidence against them before entering a plea…to make it harder to win a conviction...and the amount of time to do investigative work and discovery is down.

Though he feels for junior offenders and doesn’t like to see kids caught up in the criminal justice system, he argued that relaxing the consequences for crimes may encourage kids to get caught up in bad habits. “These new rules for juveniles are giving them the green light to commit crimes. By saying openly that “we don’t want to put kids in jail,” we’re sending the message that lawless behavior is okay. I’ve dealt with kids as young as 10 for robberies, 13-year-olds with long rap sheets. Come 15 years old, or long before that, you should know the difference between right and wrong.

“The family court system is a joke. Some juvies [found guilty in Family Court] just get a juvenile report and are released.”

Now a new series of measures, the Criminal Justice and Bail Reform laws set to take effect on January 1, will further emasculate the justice system. Under these new laws, passed earlier this year by Democrats in the State Legislature and signed into effect by Governor Cuomo, will abolish bail requirements in 90 percent of arrests, sending offenders – even those who have violent criminal records or those charged with serious offenses like homicide, stalking, strangulation, assault, and drug dealing – back onto the streets within a number of hours after committing the crime.

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (District 64, Staten Island) called these and other extreme criminal justice reform measures “a naïve and dangerous experiment that undercuts our criminal justice system and favors the criminal class over New York’s law-abiding citizens.”

Assemblywoman Malliotakis argued that recent criminal justice reforms are making it impossible for police officers to do their jobs. “Their hands are tied. They get a lot of pressure not to file reports, in order to keep the [crime] statistics low. I have constituents who complain to me all the time that police wouldn’t take a police report. But everybody knows that crime is increasing, and that the mayor is playing games with statistics to keep those numbers suppressed, but everyone sees what’s happening in the communities. Last night in Bay Ridge, over 30 cars had their tires slashed. Vandalism, burglaries, robberies, it’s all up – certainly more than the norm that we experienced before a lot of these policies were put in place.”

A rise in juvenile crimes can also be attributed to changes by city leadership, she said, who have removed discipline from the schools. It’s very hard to be suspended these days, and there’s no discipline in schools; they don’t face real consequences…and then from the criminal aspect, youth who commit crime now, even if they’re serious crimes, they go to family court as opposed to criminal court… These are the anti-police, pro-crime policies of the far Left. They’re not taking into account the threat it poses to the public.”

Residents React:
Blame the Laws, Not the Cops

Knowing that law enforcement is basically powerless to prosecute even more serious crimes has made Queens business owners reluctant to seek justice. A majority of those targeted this month admitted that they did not bother to file police reports, whether because they were dissuaded by responding officers or, more likely, because they knew that the juvenile offenders would not be prosecuted in criminal court. But not filing a police report only makes things worse by helping to mask the crime spike that criminal justice reform is causing; and it allows the legislators pushing these reforms – and emasculating our police force – to pretend that the criminal justice system is still working just fine.

Though frustrated that the “smoking gun” evidence he supplied didn’t yield so much as a charge for either of these two crimes, Soysauce owner Gavriel doesn’t blame the police. Instead, he blames de Blasio and New York’s Democrat leadership, who he says value the rights of criminals over the rights of law-abiding citizens. “It’s not the police; by and large they are good people doing a hard job. It’s the de Blasio administration. Criminals rank [lower] than their victims on their intersectional victimization chart.

“The police commissioner answers to the mayor. The mayor tells the police which types of crimes to pursue and which to drop,” Gavriel continued. “Officers are hesitant to pursue the perpetrators of ‘minor crimes,’ who might resist and [turn] violent [when confronted by police]. And for doing their job, the Left and the mainstream media accuse them of racism...for trying to make the city better… [In] that atmosphere, who could blame them?”

Benjy Haimoff of Elite Café was also able to thwart the criminals this time, but the incident has shaken him and made him fear for his livelihood. “Even in our own neighborhood we don’t feel safe. We rely on walk-ins for business… Now they’re sticking their necks out more because they’re not afraid of law enforcement anymore, and they take advantage of the Jewish communities because they know Jews don’t fight back. They wouldn’t try this in the hood because they know they’d get their butts kicked… You want to rob a biz, diff story, but you’re robbing a charity box… Just be a human being and don’t steal.

“This is happening in broad daylight. It’s one thing to rob a store in the middle of the night. It says a lot about the lack of security in this neighborhood that stores can be robbed in the middle of the day. De Blasio’s policies have made people – especially minors – feel that they can do what they want with impunity – and cops are afraid to be caught on video arresting them. Kids are running wild and they don’t care who sees.”

After this latest hit, with the tz’dakah boxes, Epstein has lost hope. “At that point I just gave up. Things are not getting better; they’re getting worse, and fast.”

Moving Forward

As Coordinator of the Queens Borough Safety Patrol (Shmira), Yoni Fricker works closely with NYPD. Mr. Fricker revealed that a number of officers within the NYPD have not followed through with what the community would expect of them.

“We Jews are a non-violent people. If given the choice between ‘fight’ and ‘flight,’ we usually choose ‘flight’… But it’s just a matter of time before law-abiding people get tired and take matters into their own hands. You’d be surprised what people are willing to do to defend their families and their livelihoods.” If the city government keeps taking a back seat to criminals, you’ll see a mass exodus from Queens. I know a lot of people moving to New Jersey, Florida, and elsewhere. People are getting tired of New York.

Epstein has now chained his tz’dakah box and installed a new security surveillance system at Pizza Professor. Eddie is adding a buzzer-entry system at Main Optical to limit foot traffic into the store. He also said his days of collecting tz’dakah are over. “I’m not putting out charity boxes in the store anymore. It makes us a target.”

Chazaq, whose name means “strong” in Hebrew because it aims to “strengthen” the community, hopes that it will be able to continue on its mission. But Chazaq’s Yaniv Meirov worries whether his charity organization and others like it will be able to succeed as lawlessness and crime continue to climb in Queens and throughout New York.

When asked how these thefts – and others like it on the rise in Queens – will affect charitable donations at community stores and restaurants, Epstein said, “I think people will think twice before giving.”

 By Emily Cohen