Police aren’t the only ones beefing up downtown patrols in the wake of last month’s violence; Red Light, Rocky, Taxi, Ninja, the Professor, Tank and their crew are scoping out the Crown Street area, too.
They are part of the Alliance of Guardian Angels, a group of citizen volunteers dedicated to reducing crime in some of America’s worst neighborhoods, who adopt pseudonyms when they’re on the job. Now, they plan to bring their New Haven patrol, clad in their trademark red berets and jackets, to the Crown Street area. The Angels have been out on some of New Haven’s most dangerous streets since mid-2007, but until recently, they have focused on Edgewood and Wooster Square.
From the Angels’ perspective, their task is to establish a peaceful but watchful presence to keep the community in check. If they observe criminal activity, they will sometimes make a citizens’ arrest, or contact the local police.
Moving to downtown, the primary concern of the Angels will be keeping students safe from robbery and assault, New Haven Angels Chapter President Rocky Pratt said. He added that the Angels plan to patrol on Thursday nights, when the clubs are busy.
When the clubs are open, downtown “is like a fishtank with a lot of money,” Pratt said. “The sharks go to the fishtank.”
This echoed Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s comments last week, when he told the News that virtually every recent incident, including the shooting on College Street Sept. 19, started inside of a club. In response to the violence, DeStefano instituted “Operation Nightlife,” stepping up police patrols in the club district on weekend nights.
Still, it’ll take more than just “Operation Nightlife” to clean up downtown, Pratt said.
“[Police Chief Frank] Limon has his work cut out for him,” he said.
Curtis Sliwa, the founder and national director of the Angels, emphasized the urgency of the organization’s work on Crown Street.
“We have to establish a presence in the downtown,” he said. “We have to be extraordinarily consistent because the ‘gin mills’ are going to be open, rain, snow, sleet or shine.”
The group has placed the downtown area on “el rapido,” the fastest of three tracks toward a bonafide Guardian Angels presence, Sliwa said.
The Angels have faced opposition in other cities from both citizens and local law enforcement, who sometimes slam them as vigilantes who give off the impression police can’t do the job on their own. Pratt said New Haven police were “stand-offish” when the Angels arrived nearly four years ago, but he said he has met with Limon both in public and in private, and the police have gradually warmed to their presence.
NOT HERE TO “INVADE”
Since Sliwa founded the group 30 years ago, he has faced scrutiny for perceptions that the Angels “invade” a region and make it their own. But he said the organization only establishes a chapter if a group within the community invites them, and they fill the bulk of their ranks with community members.
Several members of the Jewish community of New Haven first made contact with the Angels almost four years ago, and since then, the Edgewood area has seen vast improvements in “quality of life,” said Ray “the Professor” Tsukroff, who said he has been volunteering with the Angels for a year and a half. The changes include a reduction in crimes like prostitution, he said.
“We’ve come into the neighborhood and we’ve scared them off,” he said.
Tsukroff said the Angels rely on non-violent tactics to instill fear in criminals. After taking off from their Elm Street headquarters on a patrol, the Angels rarely do more than stand and observe. The idea isn’t to intimidate through force but instead to remind criminals that someone is watching and, in turn, snap community members out of a self-destructive apathy, he said.
And it’s not as if the Guardian Angels are butting into the lives of ordinary citizens, even those breaking the law, Pratt said. If Pratt sees a teenager stealing a candy bar or a man drunkenly staggering down the street, he probably won’t say anything, he said.
“I’m not looking to arrest every local kid smoking pot,” he said.
And because the Angels conduct patrols unarmed, if a situation escalates to the point where a knife or gun has been pulled, the Angels quickly disengage, Pratt said. He added that in his 30 years as a Guardian Angel, he has never had a gun pulled on him.
“CITIZENS,” NOT “SUPERHEROES”
Still, on a typical Tuesday night patrol, the Angels encountered some opposition and taunting from locals.
“Are you even from New Haven?” one man shouted, standing outside a liquor store on the corner of Whalley and Winthrop. “I give out soup every Sunday. Y’all gotta feed the poor like me!”
Several young men standing on a porch on Orchard Street accused the Angels of being undercover police officers. When Pratt explained that he was leading a group of volunteers, the men pointed out that he wore a badge.
Afterword, Pratt said he often deals with this sort of verbal abuse, adding that some citizens who have a bad day often take it out on the Angels.
Much of this resistance comes when community members feel the Angels are taking over their territory, Tsukroff said. Over time, though, resistance tends to wane, he said.
“People realize they are being observed…they are no longer invisible,” he said, adding that people are less likely to commit a crime when they know someone’s watching. “Little by little, they get used to the fact that there are people doing good things for the community,” he said.
Pratt agreed, adding that he has found the key to making progress in a community is going out on patrol as regularly as possible.
During the patrol, five New Haven citizens criticized the Angels, but around 20 people voiced support. Many drivers honked or gave a thumbs-up as they drove by, and some passersby responded to the Angels’ greetings — Angels say “good evening” or “how are you?” to everyone who passes — with a “God bless you” or “please don’t stop.”
Even if the Angels aren’t around to stop the crime, Tsukroff said, their presence helps build a sense of communal responsibility among citizens that makes residents more likely to pick up the phone when they see a problem.
“I’m not a superhero,” Pratt said. “I’m a citizen.”
Worldwide, the Guardian Angels number 5,000 across 108 United States and 32 international chapters.