Wearing a military-style red beret with matching sateen bomber jacket, volunteer crime fighter Arnaldo Salinas patrols a New York neighborhood experiencing a spike in burglaries during the coronavirus shutdown.
Salinas is a member of the Guardian Angels, an unarmed group that has been performing citizens’ arrests for over four decades and is adapting to the needs of today.
“If we see something that is a belligerence, that is a crime, we will step in,” explains the stocky 58-year-old.
Recently, Guardian Angels stood vigil outside synagogues during a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and, through its “perv busters” initiative, roamed the subway to denounce men trying to grope or flash women.
Now, they are focused on challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak that has killed around 20,000 people in New York City: robbers smashing into shuttered non-essential stores and the increasingly visible homeless on deserted streets.
The Guardian Angels have six mobile teams patrolling affected areas, including Washington Heights in Manhattan as well as parts of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.
Founder Curtis Sliwa says his crews are vital because police officers, 20 percent of whom were put of action by COVID-19 at the peak of the outbreak, are stretched and unable to respond to every break-in or act of vandalism.
Volunteers talk to shopkeepers and hand them flyers with the Guardian Angels phone number.
– Food delivery –
“We let them know they can call us if you’re having any problems. At least they feel that someone is out there looking after them and their families,” Sliwa tells AFP.
Sanjay Hodarkar, a 66-year-old pharmacist appreciates their presence on the streets.
“It’s a comfort to know they are there,” he says.
Guardian Angels are also tending to the destitute that have sought shelter on New York’s empty subway trains.
Mary Gethins, 48, walks up and down the E train delivering paper parcels containing hand wipes, a face mask, a sandwich and snacks to the homeless.
An early childhood memory of watching her mother being mugged drove her to join the Guardian Angels 22 years ago.
“It bothers me that we have to do this but it gives them a bit of a lift just for a few seconds,” she says after handing out a parcel.
Damon, a homeless 67-year-old, was one of the recipients.
“There isn’t much humanity in this country but they show that there is some,” he tells AFP.
Sliwa, now 66, formed the Guardian Angels in 1979 when he was a night manager at a McDonald’s and violent crime was rampant across a financially broken New York.
They started as 13 volunteers before spreading worldwide. Today there are 5,000 male and female Guardian Angels operating in 130 cities across 13 different countries.
Some 150 people in New York City now wear the red uniform, which is emblazoned with the group’s badge: an all-seeing eye nestled between a pair of angel wings.
The Guardian Angels is multi-ethnic and each new recruit goes through three months of self-defense and first aid training before hitting the streets.
– Critics –
But the vigilantes have a controversial history.
Authorities initially saw them as a gang and in 1992 Sliwa admitted to the New York Times that the group had faked early crime-fighting exploits for publicity.
That same year Sliwa, today a popular conservative radio talk show host, was shot five times in the back of a taxi by two gunmen.
Federal prosecutors charged John A. Gotti, the son of Gambino crime family leader John Gotti, with attempted murder but he was never convicted.
Critics of the Guardian Angels say crime fighting should be left to paid police officers and query why the Guardian Angels are still around when New York crime rates have plunged since the 1990s.
Sliwa dismisses those arguments.
“Right now there are not enough police,” he says.
“We need citizens to come out and protect those who can’t help themselves: the homeless, the emotionally disturbed, the elderly, the women, the children because they’re being preyed upon.”
Back on patrol, Salinas says the group’s tactics were more “heavy-handed” when they started out in what was then America’s murder capital but today volunteers prefer to use “brain over brawn.”
He believes the Guardian Angels’ work during the coronavirus outbreak shows its continuing relevance.
“The only reason we’re here for 41 years plus is because we have the ability to change with the times,” he tells AFP.