Should the Guardian Angels guard your safety?

The Guardian Angels are coming to Boston, but not exactly to a red-carpet reception. The Angels claim 1,000 members in a number of cities across the United STates. The volunteer group, comprising largely Hispanic and black youth , and sporting red felt berets and white T-shirts inscribed with the words "Safety Patrol," has gained notoriety by patrolling the subways of New York City as an anticrime force. Although initially criticized by city officials, the Angels recently won agreement from authorities enabling them to continue their patrols, subject to some restrictions from police and transit officials.

The group has also sought to become a force in Atlanta, despite concerns from city officials there.Now it says it will soon begin patrolling Boston. And New York, Atlanta, and Boston are apparently only the first steps toward a more ambitious goal of policing the streets of the United States and the world. "Let's face it -- mayors, governors and cops aren't the answer to the spiraling crime rate," argues Curtis Sliwa, founder and "overlord" of the group. "The people are the answer."

The movement raises questions. On one hand, the Angels deserve recognition for their constructive desire to serve the public and to fight crime. But does this give encouragement to the rise of all sorts of self-appointed vigilante groups? Is this how law enforcement should be conducted?

According to a Boston police spokesman, the intervention of a group like the Angels threatens the judicial process by complicating arrests and enforcement. While the Guardian Angels are not underground or politically militant group -- and they are not armed -- they still represent an essentially vigilante intrusion into the proper affairs of government. Such groups should not be allowed to usurp the traditional -- and carefully defined, properly trained, and legally sanctioned -- role of proper law-enforcement agencies.

This phenomenon underscores the difficulties which arise when financially hardpressed cities are forced to slash funding for their police departments. The public must ensure that its law-enforcement agencies are adequately funded. But money alone is not the answer. Mayors and administrators need to make certain that police departments are being used in the most efficient way, and that they are technically up-to-date and streamlined in their practices and p rocedures.

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