Angels Take to the Underground

THE Guardian Angels have stirred an emotional debate in Britain as their organization begins training new recruits in London. Denounced as vigilantes in Parliament but praised by the public in radio call-in shows, the New York-based group has had an unfriendly welcome from police and government officials. The Angels' initial efforts to act as a visual deterrence to crime on the London Underground (subway system) coincided with an announcement last week from the minister for public transportation, Michael Portillo, that 80 additional police officers were being assigned to the system. ``The answer to the problem of crime on the Underground is to have more police, and that is exactly what we have announced,'' a senior transport official said. ``Frankly, we wish they would just go home.''

The Angels have recruited 60 new members from the London area, and launched a three-month training program with a team from the United States, including the group's founder, Curtis Sliwa.

Despite earlier affirmations from senior government officials that the Angels were welcome in Britain if they obeyed the law, official opposition has forced them to begin training on the muddy playing fields of Hyde Park rather than in the gymnasium of a London youth club. The Tonbridge Club withdrew its offer of facilities when the local education authority threatened to cancel government grants if the Angels used the club.

``Resistance from the police is so great I've had to withdraw any help to the Angels,'' says Tom Hibert, director of the club.

Mr. Sliwa told the Monitor that government officials and the press have misunderstood the Angels. He also said the police were not facing up to the fear of crime on the subways and in public housing projects, especially in minority communities.

``What they're doing is reacting emotionally to why we've been invited rather than to reality,'' Sliwa said. Sliwa and other Angels have visited Britain regularly since 1983 at the invitation of community groups. They have spent time in the low-income neighborhoods of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham as well as Dublin, Ireland.

Sliwa said that ethnic minorities are under-represented in the police force. ``When you look at law enforcement in Britain there's certainly plenty of it, but its mostly white,'' Sliwa said. He said that many crimes are committed by minority youth, and that it has been the low-income, minority neighborhoods that feel least protected by police.

Membership in the Guardian Angels in the US is three-fouths from minority communities, mostly black and Hispanic youth. In Britain, Sliwa aims for a balanced membership which includes London's large Caribbean and Asian communities. He said that the group had attracted strong interest from these communities.

``Our most redeeming factor in the States is that many of our members would have been a part of the problem if it hadn't been for the Angels,'' said Sliwa. ``Our group emerging into the system in Britain is going to put these communities in the forefront and finally put them in a positive light.''

Sliwa said the Angels may gradually take on assignments in public housing projects and inner-city drug zones, but they will concentrate their first efforts on the London Underground.

``A lot of criminals are finding it comfortable down there,'' he said. ``Our presence is filling a tremendous vacuum in the Underground.''

London transport officials say, however, that subway crime decreased in 1988 over the previous year and that the Angels' presence on the system is provocative. The police say that citizens who want to help with law and order should join the Special Constabulary, an unpaid auxiliary police force of concerned citizens.

An amendment to police rules is expected later this year which will allow the ``specials'' to patrol the Underground as an official alternative to the Angels. Some 1,500 specials now patrol the streets of London along with a full-time force of 28,000 police. ``Clearly we can use as much commitment from the ordinary public as we can get,'' a police spokesman says.

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