Patrols of the so-called ''Guardian Angels'' in their red berets have become a familiar sight in the streets and subways of 24 cities across the United States. Trained in basic techniques of the martial arts and determined to deter crime, the ranks of these controversial young volunteers have now swelled to nearly 2,000, with another 1,700 still taking the -rigorous three-month training course. They've been operating for 21/2 years. But only now are policymakers starting to understand the Angels' wider implications for the future of America's cities.m

With his immaculately trimmed black goatee, the muscular build of an ex-fighter, a bright red beret, and a Guardian Angel T-shirt worn over his white shirt and tie, John Rivera looks a formidable figure as he leads his patrol of teen-age tough guys through the streets of this often violence-strained city.

Night has settled in, the traffic all but subsided. Only the periodic thud of Rivera's boots on the pavement marks the coordinated strides of his besneakered troops, their berets bobbing up and down in unison as they move ahead.

Suddenly a car speeds by. A young boy waves both hands out the window, shouting: ''Hey, Guardian Angels, right on!''

A warm grin breaks through Rivera's goatee.

''The people do give us a good reception here,'' he explains in a thick Hispanic accent.

''Springfield has had so much violence from youth gangs. In trying to run our patrols, deter crime, help old people get around, we want to appeal on the basis of a new image of very constructive young people.''

Meanwhile, away from the grit of Springfield's tense streets in the ivory towers of Harvard, the Angels are also attracting their share of attention among some leading -designers of the nation's criminal-justice policy. Among them, George Kelling and Mark Moore see in the Guardian Angels signals of what could be sweeping changes.

''We are concerned that public law enforcement agencies are no longer broad enough in scope nor intimate enough with neighborhoods to deal effectively with crime,'' -Professor Moore says.

''That makes us very much interested in whether private, informal citizens' arrangements like the Guardian Angels will turn out to be successful.''

After 2 1/2 years of the Angels' controversial patrols, the results are still far from clear.

Talk to ''the Angels'' and you get a certain view; talk to the police, quite different slants; talk to social agencies and citizens, still others.

But if Monitor soundings are any indication, the Angels have indeed become a catalyst for all kinds of changes - from the approach cities are taking to keeping their streets safe and the role models set before disadvantaged urban youth to the quality of services offered urban neighborhoods by social agencies.

To be sure, the fears about the Angels that sprang up in their earlier days remain.

Will their youthful idealism ultimately stoke the fires of vigilantism? Will they end up taking law enforcement into their own hands?

The Angels have been struggling to convince a wary public that these fears are unfounded, and that their record is bearing that out.

When they began in early 1979 they were a handful of New York young people from various ethnic backgrounds who had one thing in common:

''We were fed up with the daily muggings and crime infesting our neighborhoods,'' explains Lisa Evers, an attractive 24-year-old black-belt karate expert who is the -Angels' national coordinator.

''Eighty percent of today's crime is committed by young people under 21 in sneakers, and the police are usually so out of shape or confined to cars that they simply can't handle that.''

Drawing on a central corps of experts in the martial arts to give instruction in basic self-defense, the planners were eventually able to field their trained though unarmed and unpaid patrols on the streets of some of New York's toughest neighborhoods and subways.

They were determined to help reverse the usual ''don't get involved'' attitude, come to the rescue of people being being mugged, and if possible, create a crime-deterring psychological presence that would make people feel safer when walking through city streets.

The Angels' leaders have no shortage of sensational stories about being at the right place at the right time to stop or deter crime.

John Rivera, for one, says he and a fellow Springfield Angel recently defused a potentially deadly street feud between two women over their common lover, convincing one woman to put away a knife and persuading the man to give up his stranglehold around the neck of the other woman. All three, in the end, thanked the Angels for cooling them off in the nick of time.

In New York, Lisa Evers says, the Angels have managed to break up street fights, detain would-be purse snatchers until the police arrived, cool a stampeding crowd last May when a gun went off at a concert and sent people running in panic, and help to help ease a potentially dangerous atmosphere created by gang-infested crowds at Times Square last New Year's Eve, making a number of citizen's arrests along the way.

Angels' leader Curtis Sliwa credits his troops with over 150 citizen's arrests in New York, 204 nationwide. The number of serious crimes on the subway line that runs from New York City to Yankee Stadium -- the notorious so-called ''Muggers' Express'' -- has been cut in half since the Angels began riding the line, he says.

''Now all this statistically is no match for the police department,'' says the articulate, 27-year-old former social activist and restaurant manager who speaks the tough, straight talk of New York City streets.''

But we're not trying to ring up dazzling statistics of arrests. Our effect is largely in providing a visible deterrent. And in over 2 1/2 years no one has threatened us with a lawsuit, nor is there any factual evidence that we've ever committed a vigilante act.''

The police, however, warn against crediting the Angels with too much of a concrete reduction in crime. Even in New York, where the Angels have had the most experience, no one has been keeping exact statistics until recently. And police in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles say the Angels have exaggerated their exploits in the past.

At best, police are willing to credit the Angels with only a handful of citizen's arrests, and for occasionally helping a policeman in a jam.

Still, many citizens and police in Angel-patrolled neighborhoods have been impressed by unexpected social spinoffs from ''the Angels factor.''

Whether they intend it or not, the Angels appear to have pricked the consciences of urban youth as well as those of social agencies that work in urban neighborhoods.

The Angels are publicizing themselves as an organization that goes to the people with services they need. The John Riveras in their ranks are holding up the Angels as an alternative, constructive role model to compete for the affections of otherwise idle or delinquent youth.

Springfield, a city in an innocuous and peaceful-looking rural setting, has been racked with youth-gang violence in recent years.

Four years ago large numbers of unemployed urban youth, most of them living in the Hispanic North End, began to galvanize into street gangs, inspired partly , John Rivera says, by the violence-glamorizing film ''The Warriors'' and partly by their connections with gangs in New York.

But with the Angels' bid to be recognized as the group that gets things done for the community, even the roughest gangs started to change their styles.'

'I've seen on TV and interviewed members of various gangs,'' says Police Chief Paul Fenton, ''and now they say they want to stop the fighting and killing , reexamine themselves, try to help the elderly and local youth, saying, 'We can do this too, not just the Guardian Angels.'

''I think the Guardian Angels have had a lot to do with that.''

The effects are also felt by social agencies.

In Springfield's North End, for instance, social services have traditionally been provided by the the Spanish-American Union (SAU).

But Rivera's Guardian Angels have drawn away kids who before might have worked or participated in this group's programs. The Angels are getting publicity for speaking in front of organizations of elderly and concerned citizens.

Understandably, the SAU is concerned. Some leaders are critical of the Angels for not cooperating with the established agencies, and for not adequately training youth in the ways of ''street wisdom.''

But when talking with SAU leaders, it seems clear they feel new resolve to work harder and deliver better neighborhood services of their own.

The spinoffs for the design of urban law enforcement may be no less significant.

Although some city police departments and mayors have been openly hostile toward the Angels, others have begun to welcome - even invite them - to set up chapters.

The modern cruiser-on-call approach to policing can only go so far in dealing with crime, no matter how much it is beefed up with new cars, says Harvard's Professor Kelling.

Many police departments that were once adamant about being the sole authorities in crime fighting increasingly recognize the need to draw upon the help of citizens and other specialized agencies - taking a more ''pluralistic approach.''

''It's not just a platitude,'' he says. ''The evidence now shows that there is simply no substitute for individuals taking more responsibility for safety in their communities. Whether the Angels per se are a constructive solution, of course, remains to be seen.''

The Florida Crime Prevention Commission has offered the Angels of Miami a $5, 000 insurance policy for accidental crime-related deaths, according to Curtis Sliwa.

The Angels were also welcomed with open arms by the New Orleans City Council; Baltimore's City Council and police; the mayor of Hartford, Conn.; and others.

And now that New York seems to have accepted the Angels, and has begun to register them with the police, law enforcement officials seem more than happy to have the them around.

''In New York, police alone simply can't handle the extent of the crime,'' says a spokesman for New York's Transit Police. ''We really welcome any kind of citizen participation we can get. This is the day and age when people have to get involved.''

In the Boston subways the transit police are also spread dangerously thin, says a policeman who asked not to be identified.

''The robbery problem,'' he says, ''has increased drastically over the past year. The [public-transportation system] is now the sixth-largest jurisdiction of violent crimes in the state of Massachusetts. Here, I think the Angels could be exeedingly beneficial.''

To be sure, the Angels are drawing their share of criticism from the police, city officials, and community groups.

The Los Angeles police are concerned that a group like the Angels may clash with other citizen groups that patrol many of the city's neighborhoods.

''Our big fear is that they could gang up against one another,'' says Commander Jack White of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.

In Springfield, criticism is coming not only from the -Spanish-American Union , but also from Cristobal Rodriguez, a justice of the peace. The Angels, he feels, are not showing up in the community regularly enough. He also claims that they shied away from helping to cool a recent youth-gang confrontation he witnessed.

Nevertheless, to walk through Springfield with John Rivera's Angels makes it clear the kind of positive neighborhood recognition the Guardian Angels can draw through their patrols:

As our night patrol approaches the Springfield bus station, Felix (Chill) Ortiz break off with two other Angels to circle around the building and rejoin us in the lobby from the other side. Entering the lobby, we are approached by the security guard, a tall, casually dressed man with the collar of his jacket turned up.

''Hey, I like these guys,'' he says, stepping away from the group to talk. ''They should have had 'em a long time ago. We get a lot of loiterers, trespassers, and local kids hanging around to make a fast score on someone's ticket money, and I get in scuffles now and then, as you can see,'' he says, pointing to bruises around his nose and ears.

''I like having these guys pop in and out. They don't bother nobody and they're courteous and polite. I'll bet you they'd step in to help me out if I got into a problem.''

As the patrol heads back out into the streets, we pass a lone policeman, hands on gun-belted hips, watching over a construction crew as it tears up pavement with jackhammers. He takes notice as the Angels go by. A family across the street calls out to the acknowledge the Angels' presence.

''How's it goin'?'' Rivera asks, flashing a smile.

As the patrol turns northward toward the North End, a man pulls over to the side of the road and asks anxiously, ''Which way to Mercy Hospital?''

As the Angels direct him on his way, Rivera says, ''This happened before with a police officer in a cruiser. He decided to pull over a car he had been following right in front of us, probably because he knew he could get backup help from us if he needed it.''

Passing on by the park where recent shootings had occurred, people sitting on their front porches watch the Angels pass, some calling out to them to get home and do some homework, others expressing open admiration.''

In the coming months,'' Rivera says at the end of this patrol, ''we hope to set up a new branch for the very young to participate, programs to help the elderly cross the streets and get to stores without being robbed. We will be working with the Fair Share organization of Springfield to help them set up block associations of citizens to get together to look out for each other and keep their blocks clean.''

Whether the Angels can sustain the enthusiasm and controlled behavior of their young troops remains a question.

Although a chapter like the one here has drawn 40 new applications from all over the city, the dropout rate is considerable. And fielding patrols on a regular basis is difficult, especially now that school is in session.

But in the final analysis, observes Professor Kelling, even if the Angels do nothing more than spur more action to reduce the fear of crime, they will have achieved an important end. For that fear has in some ways become more of a problem than the crime itself.

Statistically, the instances of violent crime are very rare, according to Harvard's Professor Moore, even though the number of such crimes has risen in recent years.

Most violent crimes are committed by people who know each other. Random violence is relatively scarce. More common, he says, are crimes of petty larceny. More frequent still are what he calls ''incivilities'' and disorderliness on the streets -- people taunting other people, playing their radios too loud, looking at others with threatening gestures.

It is the petty crimes, coupled with this incivility and disorderliness, which are more closely connected to the fear of crime than violent crime itself, the research shows.

''With fear being blown way out of proportion relative to the level of serious crime,'' Professor Kelling says, ''the middle class is abandoning public transportation for the wrong reasons. Actually, there is much more danger of violence from commuting back and forth into the cities by car and getting hit by a drunk driver or some other highway hazard.''

''But there's no question that if fear can be decreased, the normal social control of the community over crime goes up. And if groups like the Guardian Angels can help to address fear, that's an end in itself and shouldn't be pooh-poohed.

''Whether misguided or not, succeeding or not, at least the young people of patrols like Rivera's are convinced that they've made a stride in the right direction.Sitting in the Rivera living room after their patrol, three Angels linger, as they often do, taking off their berets and official Angel T-shirts, to wax philosophical about their work.Why do they get involved, run the risks of getting shot at, make all the effort to get in shape, to help people for no pay?''I think Springfield has been getting ridiculous and needs a change,'' reflects Angel Cruz, a slender 16-year-old with a big shock of carefully groomed wavy hair.''New York got so bad because nobody cares,'' he continues. ''You could be getting shot at, stabbed, raped, and nobody's going to give you a hand unless they know you. The same things have spread here, and I want to change that. I don't want to live someplace where I see someone in my family get jumped.''

Chill Ortiz chimes in:

''I just like to help the people. Once I get out of school I have nothing to do with those hours I've got left,'' says the tall, muscular 17-year-old, sitting casually in his red sweat pants.''

So with the Angels I'm getting out to help the old people, talk to them, help old ladies up the stairs and to the stores. I used to get beat up a lot, but most people don't bug me any more.''

He looks across at Nelson (Pudgie) Lopez, 16.

''I feel safer after joining the Angels,'' says Pudgie with a certain passion.

''I feel more confident in myself. The Guardian Angels has taught me to have more control over myself. Before if somebody told me to strip a car or something like that I'd be tempted. Now I know there's something better to do. It doesn't get in the way of my school, I still have my friends, my family. And my family now says, Hey, Nelson's out there helping us out.''

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