For 20 years, the Phoenix Police Department’s Police Chief’s Advisory Boards have been bridging the gap between the police department and minority communities in Phoenix. That includes the Jewish Advisory Board, which allows the Jewish community to stay connected with police resources and for community leaders to share concerns.
“The actual function of the board is multifaceted, but its primary function is to build a bridge between the Jewish community and the police department,” said Detective Michael Hillman, the Phoenix Police Department community liaison to the Jewish Advisory Board.
Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix and a new member of the advisory board, says that the program is a unique opportunity for the Phoenix Jewish community to be heard.
“Good public diplomacy is about listening,” said Rockower. “The advisory board is showing that the Phoenix Police Department is listening to the concerns of the community, and it’s showing that we’re listening to their concerns.”
As the liaison to the Jewish Advisory Board, Hillman also benefits from a special connection to the Jewish community: He’s worked as an off-duty police officer at Temple Chai for 22 years. “I’m not Jewish, but I’ve been at the temple for so long that I tell people I’m the most Jewish Christian you’ll ever meet,” Hillman said.
The Jewish Advisory Board is one of 12 community advisory boards that regularly meet with the Phoenix Police Department. Other boards include representatives of the African American community, the LGBTQ community and the refugee community in Phoenix.
According to Hillman, the program has been around for around 20 years, and has continually evolved based on the needs of the communities they represent. Each board works independently with a liaison to address that community’s specific concerns.
“Other advisory boards create initiatives, but we don’t necessarily do that,” said Rabbi Levi Levertov, chair of the Jewish Advisory Board. “Ours is more about communication, keeping communication lines open between ourselves in the community and also keeping the police department informed for things that we see that they might not take notice of.”
Each meeting of the Jewish Advisory Board includes a 20-minute presentation from an officer from the police department, followed by a round table discussion and dinner. At the most recent meeting, a representative of the Phoenix Police Bias Crimes Detail came to explain how hate crimes are investigated.
“We look for people from the police department who can come in and explain things, and then we can bring that message back to our congregations or our organizations,” said Alan Zeichick, vice chair of the Jewish Advisory Board.
According to Levertov, the concerns of the community don’t change significantly from meeting to meeting, but it’s important to have police officers continue to listen and be aware.
“It’s nothing new in a sense. We talk about anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic attacks,” Levertov said. “That’s not new, but you know that the police department is addressing it. There’s a real sense of ‘we’re listening, we’re doing our best.’”
The board can also advise the police department about cultural differences and disagreements, Zeichick said. “Particularly in the Jewish community, we’re not all the same. Something that may be true with the ultra-Orthodox community here may not be true for the more secular Jews and vice versa.”
Differences such as some congregations celebrating one day of Rosh Hashanah while others celebrate for two, or different opinions on the importance of maintaining eruvs, or inconsistencies in whether synagogues want a uniformed police officer or patrol car stationed outside their building — all of these can be confusing to police officers who aren’t familiar with the Jewish community.
“The police do their best, but they can’t necessarily understand all those things,” Zeichick said.
As for Hillman, his relationship with the Jewish community makes it possible to respond quickly to an emergency. On the day of the Chabad of Poway shooting in April, members of the advisory board messaged Hillman about the tragedy. He reached out to commanders in precincts throughout Phoenix and asked them to send patrol cars to synagogues.
“It makes people feel a little bit safer,” he said.
And when a big event or holiday is coming up, the board provides a channel of communication to ensure that security is a priority.
“With our heightened awareness of security throughout the Jewish world and throughout the world, the board has played a really instrumental role,” Levertov said. He noted the internal bridge-building that happens at board meetings, too.
“You sit with Jewish organizations that you would never really be sitting at a table with,” he said. “It’s not about Orthodox, Reform, Conservative. It’s about Jewish community. We’re all here for each other.” JN