Sporting their signature red berets, members of the Guardians Angels, a volunteer unarmed citizen crime patrollers organization, have begun walking the streets of Riverhead on the lookout for people who may be up to no good.
According to Curtis Sliwa, who founded the Guardian Angels in the late 1970s in New York, there are three chapters of the organization on Long Island. Guardian Angels have patrolled Huntington Station for a few years, and in 2005 helped tackle a drug problem in Greenport. Last year, after a reported gang shooting in Southold between alleged members of MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, Sliwa said he agreed to reactivate the Guardian Angels in Greenport. And in recent months Sliwa has established patrols in Riverhead, with the blessing and encouragement of Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter.
“It has been difficult over the last few years to reach out to the Hispanic community,” Walter said in his State of the Town address in February. “We have hired Spanish-speaking police officers and trained other officers in speaking Spanish, however that is not enough. I believe the addition of the Guardian Angels to Riverhead is a good thing. Let me correct that—it is a great thing.”
Sliwa said Latino gang members are victimizing fellow Latinos. He alleges gang members intimidate business owners and extort money from day laborers. To combat crime within the Latino immigrant community, the Guardian Angels have recruited members from within that community, he explained.
Unlike a neighborhood watch or the like, which simply calls the authorities, Guardian Angels will physically intervene when a crime is being committed and make citizen arrests, Sliwa noted.
“We’re not going to be allowing them to hang out, harass people, shake down people,” he said. The presence of Guardians Angels can prevent gang members from tagging turf, and prevent fights from breaking out as rowdy men leave bars, he added.
Patrols, consisting of at least four Guardian Angels, target downtown Riverhead and the train station. During this start-up period, experienced members from the city are helping local recruits in Riverhead. In a year’s time, the locals will be able to operate independently and autonomously, Sliwa said.
This weekend Sliwa is visiting Southampton and Westhampton in hopes of getting more people involved in the effort.
Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said Friday he appreciates having extra eyes and ears on the streets. However, he said the Guardian Angels in Greenport are not in communication with the police department, so he does not know when they patrol and how often, and he does not receive information from them about criminal activity.
It would be naive to think Greenport could not have another incident like the shooting last October involving El Salvadorian gangs, Flatley acknowledged. Though he said there has been no other reported gang activity or crimes related to gangs.