Riding the rails with New York's crime-busting 'Angels'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

He reinterated, as do his colleagues, that no Angel is ever allowed to carry a weapon and that all are given extensive training both in the laws which permit them to make citizens' arrests and in physical self-defense. Every Angel must attend an hour of self-defense training every week.

And there are other membership qualifications: A prospective Angel must be at least 16 years of age, is granted an application interview only if he or she is recommended by a current member; must have physical stamina and self-defense skills; must either be working at a full-time job, actively and convincingly looking for work, or attending high school or college.

On the other hand, Mr. McKechnie of the transit police union, one of the group's sternest critics, claims that many Angels don't go to school, don't have jobs, and aren't looking for them. Too many, he believes, have criminal backgrounds and "many have been arrested" in the context of their Angel patrols. At the very least, he contends, the Angels should be made to become bonafide auxilliary police, and thus be licensed to "act as the eyes and ears" of authorities but have no power to detain or arrest anyone.

Not so, Angel's leader Sliwa argues, saying that no matter how many policemen are on duty there is still the urgent need for assistance from young people who are not restricted by official rules and regulation.

Yet he argues: "We [the Angels] are not living above the law; we are subject to the law."

Patrick Murphy, a former New York City police commissioner and now president of the prestigeous nonprofit Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., told the Monitor that just how accurate Sliwa's statement is can really only be determined by examining every controversial incident in which the Angels are involved.

Private citizens, Mr. Murphy explains, do have the power to step in and prevent crime as well as make arrests. What concerns him and other criminal justice experts is that the Angels may break the law, perhaps inadvertently, by using excessive force, where none may be needed or justified. That is why he believes that it so important that the Angels, or any other self-proclaimed crime fighters, come under the aegis of local authorities who can train and guide them.

The Angels carry no weapons, but many have advanced skills in karate. For example, New York City leader Lisa Evers, a 22-year-old, has a "brown belt" in karate.

But many other Angels obviously do not have such advanced skills in self-defense, and one Angels' karate trainer says he has serious reservations about the group permitting women to go on patrols. At present, 50 Angels are women. In addition, to visit an Angels training center, as this reporter did, is to see widely varying levels of physical and mental preparedness.

Law enforcement officials do give the organization credit for channeling youthful energies away from what might have easily been lives of crime.

"Most crime is committed by youngsters," Sliwa said emphatically. "We've got to get some of these young people who might be on the line, who might well fall one way or the other in terms of getting into trouble . . . [and] get them involved in protecting people . . . in an organized fashion."

And not for vengeance, either, he says. "When I first joined I basically wanted revenge," agrees Angel "captain" Lawrence Thompson, whose mother was mugged. "I wanted to find this person. But after being in the Angels for a while I started to forget about it ; I started to care about people, especially elderly people on the trains."

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