''I feel safer and more relaxed when I see a Guardian Angel riding on the train.'' In New York, many subway passengers echo the words of Andrea Payne, who commutes daily between Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan.
But the Big Apple is home ground to the Alliance of Guardian Angels Inc., founded in that city by Curtis Sliwa in 1979.
The organization's red berets and white T-shirts with angel-wing emblems are evident in some 50 United States cities, but the welcome mat has not always been out. The Angels have been given the cold shoulder in some communities, and heated opposition has greeted them in others.
Guardian Angels, who carry no weapons but are trained in the martial arts, have been riding transit trains in Boston and patrolling some neighborhoods since a chapter was started here in 1981. But in Boston, as in some other cities , they seem to have run into trouble when they moved out of the subways and began patrolling neighborhoods. Locals, particularly young men, apparently felt their ''turf'' was being invaded.
In July 1983 an Angels patrol was assaulted by neighborhood youths in South Boston.
And when the red berets appeared this past August on the streets of Mattapan, a racially ethnically mixed neighborhood at Boston's southern extremity, they were challenged by local youths. Several fights occurred.
Police and community officials intervened, and after some two weeks of debate and negotiations, it was agreed that Guardian Angels patrols would enter the neighborhood only after obtaining the approval of local leaders.
Sociologists and other specialists say they are not surprised by community reactions like that in Mattapan. And they point out that even locally organized watchdog groups have limited value.
Local residents don't like to be ''invaded by Guardian Angels or any outside watchdog group,'' says sociologist Eleanor Engram, director of the Center for Holistic Education in San Jose, Calif. ''People want to say they're in this thing together. San Francisco people felt 'intimidation' from the Angels. In San Jose we have police-approved 'cadets.' ''
Prof. James Allan Fox of Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice says, ''Guardian Angels and community watch groups don't reduce crime, but do have emotional impact in specific situations.
Lisa Sliwa, wife of Curtis Sliwa and national director of the Guardian Angels , acknowledges that there are people who ''doubt us.'' She received a bitter dose of community displeasure in Boston and had to apologize for an angry outburst before tensions were calmed.
''We have to work more closely with neighborhood residents if we are to succeed in communities,'' Mrs. Sliwa admits. After she returned to New York, local Guardian Angels staged a ''peace march'' in Mattapan.
But her vision of her organization's role has not dimmed. ''I see a turning point in our organization,'' Mrs. Sliwa says. ''I see an expanded mission for the Guardian Angels in our second five years. I see a more structured organization, a national anticrime agency holding conferences and conventions, a group that can survive my husband and me.''
Comments by police officials in some major US cities indicate there may be some resistance to such expansion.
''Our position is that any group is free to march and patrol in an orderly fashion within the law,'' says Sgt. Daniel Carr of the Detroit police public relations staff. ''In our city, neighborhood people and civilian patrols take care of street watches.
''We haven't encouraged the Guardian Angels. Our basic feeling is that we have seven or eight programs going at any citizen's level, and we train those who want to help. The Guardian Angels are not interested in our approach.''
In Newark, N.J., where a Guardian Angels member was fatally shot by a police officer in December 1981, a spokesman says: ''The police department has no indications that the Guardian Angels operate here. They refused to cooperate with us. They refused to obey our rules relating to civilian patrols. ... They are very insignificant as far as we're concerned.''
A grand jury cleared the Newark policeman who said he fired at the the Angels member when he saw him rushing toward another police officer as they were investigating a burglary. He said the Guardian Angel did not identify himself and he thought his fellow officer was being attacked. Another Guardian Angel was killed in Brooklyn, N.Y., in July 1981 as he struggled with three men who were robbing two women.
Los Angeles police have ''very little contact'' with the Angels, says Rod Berson, the department's press relations officer. ''The Guardian Angels held a few press conferences and seem to have faded away,'' he adds.
Guardian Angels have been active ''off and on'' during the past three years in San Francisco, says Sgt. Michael Perry. ''We have not endorsed them,'' he says. ''Our concern is that we don't want to encourage vigilantes of any type. We have no control over the Guardian Angels and their training. They get along very well with our beat officers, however.''
Are the Angels vigilantes? ''Not really,'' says Obie Clayton, a sociology professor specializing in criminology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. ''That's stretching the case. They do serve a purpose, but their function is not to displace police.''
Dr. Engram in San Jose says that youths join groups like the Guardian Angels because they ''want to be part of something positive, making their community a clean and safe place to live in.''
Most members are young - high school students plus a few college students and employed people, but most local leaders are more mature and, like Lawrence Turnbow, director of the Boston and New England Guardian Angels, starting on professional careers. Mr. Turnbow, who is black, is a banker.
''We pay no dues; we have no paid staff, and we have no national or local headquarters,'' explains Mrs. Sliwa. ''We have no budgets. We accept no one with a criminal record.
Members are volunteers who have one obligation to us: they pay $3.50 for each offical Guardian Angel T-shirt. They buy their own berets from retail stores.''