Since their heyday 40 years ago, the Guardian Angels have become a figment of New Yorkers’ collective memory. The volunteer vigilante squad, led by Curtis Sliwa, was a mainstay in the city in the late 1970s and ’80s—a period when the police department coined the moniker “Fear City” for the five boroughs and warned tourists not to go out after sunset.
The charismatic and controversial Sliwa trained his red-capped followers—mostly young people of color from troubled neighborhoods—to patrol the streets and subways. At the time, crime was high: The rates of murder, theft, and assault all roughly doubled between 1965 and 1975. And by the mid-1970s, the police force was thinned out because of a fiscal crisis facing the city. The troupe’s stated aim was to protect citizens and deter wrongdoing, and they’d physically fight individuals they deemed a threat.
But the Guardian Angels, and Sliwa himself, were not without critics, who said the members were inadequately trained, ineffective, and behaved no better than local gangs did. The most prominent critic was former Mayor Ed Koch, who accused Sliwa of being more interested in fame than stopping criminals. That accusation was partially corroborated in 1992 when Sliwa, whose group by then had expanded internationally, admitted to faking multiple crimes for publicity—a decision he’s since said he regrets.
New York City is a wholly different town today: Crime rates are at historic lows and a crisis of gentrification has largely replaced that of urban blight. But to Sliwa, the Guardian Angels are still relevant, even if their ranks in New York are a shadow of what they once were. Last year, he found a reason to call his followers back to service: a series of subway slashings that then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton called an “aberration.” “There’s an aggressiveness that’s taking place in the subways that hasn’t taken place for quite some time,” Sliwa told Time. “My sense over the years is that we’re beginning to slip back.”
In hyping those events, Sliwa seems to be aiming for a Guardian Angels resurgence. His current focus is the subway system, which he claims is a dangerous place for women specifically. I spoke with Sliwa recently about his motivations; his legacy; and a new documentary, Vigilante, that chronicles his career, mostly through his own perspective. The conversation that follows, held over two phone calls, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Maura Ewing: First, the red beret: You are wearing it in every scene. Is that your everyday attire?
Curtis Sliwa: It’s like an appendage to my head. People think that I sleep with it.
Ewing: Do you?
Sliwa: Sometimes I do. I actually pull it over my head and it blocks out the light and I catch a few zzz’s. You can do everything with that red beret.
Ewing: What’s the current status of the Guardian Angels? Are you patrolling?
Sliwa: We’re in 13 countries, 130 cities. We have an international membership of about 5,000. The main focus is always going to be the patrol. We also have ancillary things that we do now—for instance, we have Junior Guardian Angels. These are young girls, young boys, who are six to 15 years old. They do not patrol—we teach them martial arts. This way they can protect themselves, it teaches them discipline, and it gives them self-esteem. They also do community service.
Most recently I’ve spent a lot of time on two new groups. One is called the Perv Busters. It’s mostly women who patrol. The program has had just a year in existence in New York City; now we’re going to try to roll it out in some of our other chapters. They go after the [men] exposing themselves on the subways—very similar to what we’ve seen a lot of well-to-do guys be accused of and acknowledge, like the comedian Louis C.K. [These men] collect in mass transit because it’s easy for them to rub up against women and violate women, particularly during rush hour.
Often, we are provided pictures of them that victims took with their cellphones. We’ll do informational outreach in which we print up thousands of flyers and spread them throughout the system and then immediately begin pursuing them—something the local authorities just don’t do. It’s almost like out of sight, out of mind.
Ewing: With Perv Busters, are you trying to catch people in the act?
Sliwa: We have, but it’s not the main focus. The predators underground in the subways are creatures of habit. They will ride the same trains at the same times, normally at peak hours, because if a woman objects to him [touching] her or accosting her, he can claim, “Oh, it’s so crowded here, I’m sorry.” We get their photographs, and we begin to hunt them. We have had some arrested, but it’s mostly an informational campaign.
Ewing: Do you ever worry that you’re going after an innocent person?
Sliwa: Of course. The checks and balances are that you don’t act like Donald Trump and retweet something. You do due-diligence forensic research [to see] if you can come up with a name, an identity, other people who will likewise indicate that this person has been molesting women in the area. We’ve been doing this for over a year-and-a-half. We’ve probably leafletted 185 [men]. None of it has come back to haunt us because we didn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
Ewing: How do you do your research?
Sliwa: We try to go online, see if there are other women who likewise have seen this guy, or if he fits a description. A lot of times women will take pictures of these guys—you make sure it’s not Photoshopped. If enough women have come forward and have IDed the guy and he seems to have a certain pattern, then we go with it without police verification.
Ewing: What is enough?
Sliwa: Enough is three or more people who have IDed the guy who aren’t friends with each other and not related—independent sources.
Ewing: Is Perv Busters legal?
Sliwa: It’s legal. But if you ID the wrong person, you yourself can be arrested because, remember, we have no special powers or privileges.
Ewing: Your group started patrolling the subways again in New York City about a year ago—is that right?
Sliwa: No, we have patrolled regularly since 1979. We’ve had patrols every day and every night since we began. But nowhere near to the effect that we had between 1979 and 1993, which is the period that the documentary covers.
Ewing: I read in a Time story that you came back last year because of a series of slashings on the subway.
Sliwa: That’s true. We doubled down, we increased our recruitment, and we began to focus on those neighborhoods that were the feeding system for the slashings. They weren’t taking place all over the subway system, but were in certain key junction areas, particularly up to Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, the South Bronx, and parts of Brooklyn. The NYPD didn’t seem to have an answer to it at the time, so we helped to fill the void. [The NYPD did not reply to a request for comment on this story, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority declined to comment on Sliwa’s campaign in the subways.]
People will get in contact with us if they haven’t gotten relief from first going to the police. We’re always the last choice that a person has when they’re frustrated because they’ve tried all other measures, and they figure they’ve got nothing to lose. The Perv Busters is a classic example: Every time we’re on the subway, we have women coming up, showing us pictures on their cellphones. We always ask, “Did you take it to the police?” They say, “Yeah.” “What happened?” “Nothing.”
Obviously, we were more needed in the ’70s when they were laying off cops because the city was in fiscal distress. [In 1974] the city announced that at night there would be no more uniformed police patrolling [in the subway] during the off-peak hours, 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. That was a license to steal for thugs. You don’t have that situation now. The police are fully staffed and they generally do a pretty good job. But there are still those pockets out there, situations that they chose not to get involved in. Or they’ve tried some methods and are just not successful. Or they don’t seem to understand the problem.
Ewing: It seems like you have an interest in convincing the public that crime is coming back. Is that an element of your approach?
Sliwa: No, I wouldn’t say it is.
Ewing: But in New York, your group reemerged after the slashings. I read that you were convinced the city’s slipping back. Is it part of your approach to tell people the city is getting more dangerous?
Sliwa: Definitely in the subways, the number of [reported] sexual assaults and sexual harassments has gone up each of the past two years by 20 percent. It’s a major problem in the subway system, along with crime in general in the subway, whereas you can’t really make the same case aboveground. But, still, it’s a much better system than what we were introduced into when anarchy reigned between 1979 and 1992 in the subways.
Ewing: The new documentary alleges that you contributed to the decline of crime in the ’90s. How?
Sliwa: There were three ways that we contributed: First, we destroyed the stereotype that existed in our city that young black and Latino men or women coming out of the hood had a predisposition to join gangs and be thugs or thugettes. That was a very prevalent stereotype. But here emerges the Guardian Angels, predominately black or Hispanic young people who were a total contrast to the gangs.
Secondly, we had a fight-back mentality. The acronym very common then was MYOB: Mind your own business. You had a lot of lawyers out there threatening to sue people, like us, who got physically involved. We spit in their eye and defied that.
The last thing was that we proved that one woman or one man could make a difference in a neighborhood. All it took was one person to start organizing; he or she could make a difference. You just had to do the heavy lifting and the hard work and know that change would come in slow increments.
Ewing: Some counter theories to why crime declined are that there was economic growth in the ’90s and more people were incarcerated—what do you think about that?
Sliwa: Birthrate, that’s another factor. I personally believe a lot of it had to do with an enormous drop in the youth population. All of those factors played in, too.
Ewing: Initially, how did you get community members to trust the Guardian Angels?
Sliwa: They were coming from poor and impoverished neighborhoods; they were fed up; they wanted to fight back but needed a vehicle and mechanism to do that. It’s very hard to do that on your own.
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.