(Telegraph) – With their bright red jackets and berets, the Guardian Angels were once a common sight in a city riddled with violent crime.
And this week they made a pointed return to New York’s Central Park for the first time in more than two decades, citing a 26 per cent rise in crime there so far this year.
“We realise things are much better than they were” in the crime peak of the 1980s and early 90s, said Curtis Sliwa, the group’s founder, but “we want it to stay that way.”
City officials stress that crime is down citywide, and the park is far safer than it once was. Still, the renewed patrols by the Guardian Angels – known for both crime-fighting and controversy during their 35 years – are bright-red signals of unease about whether New York, touted for years as the nation’s safest big city, is slipping.
Mr Sliwa and eight other Guardian Angels, ranging from greying long timers to a 20-year-old woman, trooped along roadways, paths and dark trails for hours one night this week, shining flashlights into thickets, asking people whether they had experienced any trouble and eyeballing a quartet of teenagers who quickly took off on bicycles.
Onlookers’ reactions ranged from thumbs up to raised eyebrows. “Time warp!” one passing jogger exclaimed.
“I didn’t even know they were still in business,” said Christine Adebiyi, a resident of Harlem, before adding: “It’s great to see them here.”
After years of celebrating reductions in crime, the nation’s biggest city has seen murders rise by 9 per cent so far this year, although serious crime overall is down 5 per cent.
A quarter of a century after the “Central Park jogger” rape case made the park a symbol of urban danger, officials said in recent years that the 842-acre expanse was one of the safest urban parks of its size worldwide.
Despite this year’s increase – largely a result of robberies going from 11 at this point last year to 22 so far in 2015 – overall crime is down more than 80 per cent compared with two decades ago, the New York Police Department said. Even with the recent increase, crime is lower than two years ago, NYPD statistics show.
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Guardian Angels say their their function is largely to deter crime, but if they see it, they arere ready to make citizens’ arrests, call police and defuse potential problems. This week, they prompted some young men to move on amid reports that the youths had been throwing rocks at people in the park and broke up a shoving match between two other men, said Mr Sliwa.
The Guardian Angels began in 1979 and quickly expanded to other cities, welcomed by some people as a tough-minded neighborhood watch, derided by others as loose-cannon, publicity-seeking vigilantes.
By the mid-1990s, some chapters folded and the Guardian Angels’ reputation took a hit when Mr Sliwa acknowledged fabricating some of their early exploits.
But the Guardian Angels endured and evolved: They now count about 5,000 members in 18 countries, he said.
In New York, Guardian Angels still patrol parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. But shortly after Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty began in 1994, they felt policing had intensified enough that they weren’t needed to fight crime in Central Park, said Mr Sliwa.
“It got better,” until recently, he said. “That’s why you need to nip it in the bud now.”