It’s a wet Tuesday night in Stamford Hill and I’m on an impromptu stakeout with two Orthodox Jewish men wearing police-issue stab vests.
Shulem Stern’s roomy people carrier has three child seats in the back to accommodate his large young family. But tonight – like almost every night of the week for Shulem and his partner Michael Scher – it's our undercover surveillance vehicle as we cruise around north London looking for any prospective criminals.
I lower the window to get a better look at the “IC1 male” spotted acting suspiciously around Clapton Common. We’ve killed the engine and the lights, and we all watch in silence as the suspect wanders back and forth in the rain. He walks off after a few minutes and Michael speaks into his crackling two-way radio: “Male no longer considered a threat, let’s conclude.” Three similar vans I hadn’t noticed peel off in different directions, their Orthodox drivers nodding to my co-passengers as they pass.
Shulem and Michael are members of Stamford Hill Shomrim (Hebrew for "guards"), a Jewish neighbourhood patrol group set up to assist the London Metropolitan Police (MPS) in reducing crime. It’s one of four Shomrim groups in the UK (there’s one in Golders Green and two in the Manchester area, plus a number in various US cities), but this is the largest.
The 22 volunteers are on call 24 hours a day and spend three to four hours each day driving, walking or cycling the streets of Clapton, Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill and South Tottenham in search of any crimes being committed. The only restriction to the patrol is once a week during Shabbat, a period of roughly 25 hours that entails refraining from any work activities, i.e. using a mobile phone or driving a car. “We’re like a very proactive neighbourhood watch,” says Shulem once we’re back on the road.