Riding the rails with New York's crime-busting 'Angels'
The incessant, window-rattling rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat of the subway is suddenly silent as the train pulls into the station at 149th Street and the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx.Skip to next paragraph
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Almost in unison, 14 teen-agers and young adults, each one standing in a separate car and wearing a bright red beret, step to the open door. They do not get out but look up and down the line, checking for possible trouble: a purse-snatcher dashing out, or in; someone being attacked; even an elderly man or woman who seems unable to make it into the train before the doors close. Spotting none, they all duck back inside as the doors close quickly and the train slowly snakes further uptown.
It was 3:30 p.m. on a Friday. I had joined this platoon of "Guardian Angels" at Grand Central Station and the ride to their headquarters near the Fordham Road subway stop on the southern fringe of the South Bronx was untroubled. One "Angel" told a husky teen-ager to turn off his radio (loud radios violate a city law) and he promptly complied with a minimum of muttering. There was no violence, there were no physical confrontations, no "citizens arrests" made.
But as the Guardian Angels' influence increases across the nation -- at present, the New York-based crime fighters are either operating or organizing chapters in 17 cities -- so do questions concerning their tactics and usefulness.
Nationwide, most police spokesmen acknowledge that the 2 1/2-year-old group has deterred crime, although they aren't basing this on any known statistics. But police and politicians from around the country widely disagree about what the Angels' exact role and means of fighting crime should be. In New York, where the Angels number 700 strong, tensions between Angels and police authorities have flared occasionally.
William McKechnie, president of the New York City Transit Patrolman's Benevolent Association (PBA), calls the Angels "vigilantes" who use lawless, violent methods to restrain and arrest alleged wrongdoers. But a spokesman for the city's transit authority, which runs the crime-ridden subways, says "the department acknowledges that they may be a deterrent to crime" although they need to come under official supervision. And Commander William Booth of the Los Angeles Department of Public Safety goes so far as to say that "we don't oppose them or have any problem with them."
The public, meanwhile, seems to have a generally favorable attitude toward the Angels, judging by polls and the hearty calls of "Hey, you're-doin'-a-great-job" and warm smiles they often get as they ride the city's subways and buses, and walk the streets and parks.
How long the Angels, who now number about 1,000 in cities around the country by their own count, choose to avoid government supervision of some kind is up to one man -- group founder and national director Curtis Sliwa, a good-looking young man of medium height and build who grew up in a middle-class white section of Brooklyn.
In an interview at the rambling and ramshackled Angel headquarters, which also is serving as Sliwa's apartment, he vehemently defended the organization's two principals:
1. The use of force to detain and arrest those who have committed or are about to commit major crimes, like assault.
2. Autonomy from any government law enforcement agencies as long as they do not allow the Angels to use force.