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Guardian Angels take to NJ streets as cops dwindle
CAMDEN, New Jersey |
CAMDEN, New Jersey (Reuters) - The small New Jersey town of Camden had the recent misfortune to be named the second most dangerous city in America just as it prepared to lay off half of its cops because the city is broke.
Now, in scenes evocative of New York's crime-ridden South Bronx from the 1970s, the red-beret wearing Guardian Angels are here on street patrols, hoping to keep crime at bay.
But as if to remind them how bad things are here, at the end of a six-hour patrol last Sunday night the nine volunteers from New York City and Philadelphia returned to find the tires slashed on their two parked cars.
"It was a pretty hairy situation to be in," said Curtis Sliwa, the Guardian Angels' founder who was leading the patrol. "The vultures were definitely circling."
A full-time booster for the group, Sliwa has publicly admitted to exaggerating the Guardian Angels' crime-fighting exploits in the past. But in Camden, for every resident who offered a sneer or an aggressive gesture, there were three more who expressed gratitude.
A city of about 80,000 people just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden was once a thriving manufacturing town.
In 2010, there were nearly 40 homicides and the CQ Press named it the second most dangerous U.S. city.
"It's the Fallujah of the United States," said Sliwa, a reference to the Iraqi city where U.S. soldiers battled insurgents. "And because no one seems to care, we've basically written off Camden. But that's not the American spirit."
As New Jersey cities have struggled with big budget shortfalls and cuts in state aid, Sliwa has been building and expanding Guardian Angel chapters in Camden, the capital of Trenton, the gambling haven Atlantic City, and in Newark, New Jersey's largest city, all of which have seen police layoffs.
In Camden, there is some skepticism about how much impact the Guardian Angels can really have.
"The source of the crime and the killing is coming out of drugs," said Monsignor Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church in Camden who has lived in the city for 42 years. "And you cannot stop drugs, that's an illusion."
But he added: "If you want to be of help to people, and particularly poor people, this is the place to be."
LIVES ON THE LINE
The Angels began in New York City's South Bronx in the 1970s to deter crime on the city's No. 4 subway line, then nicknamed the "mugger's express." The group has expanded into 14 countries, including Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.
"I realize it's a risky job but it's risky to live here," one of them, Terez Sigel, 32, said as she navigated her way along a Camden side street that had not seen a snow plow since the last major storm and past a row of boarded-up homes.
"We are willing to put our lives on the line to save the life of another," she said.
Sigel, who has an easy smile and long blond braids that reach her waist, said the police layoffs were a mistake.
"They're working in the No. 2 most dangerous city in America. If anything, they deserve raises," she said.
In the two weeks the Guardian Angels have patrolled the streets of Camden, Sigel -- whose Guardian Angel street name is T-Rex -- said they have already saved two lives.
They said they administered CPR and called an ambulance for a man who had suffered a drug overdose in a public bathroom. And just a few days before, they say they helped a man at the bus station who had cracked his head while having a seizure.
A few hours later, in the high-crime Northeast section of the city, the Guardian Angels team watched as several patrol cars pulled up to a two-story house.
The nine stood in a line on the sidewalk to show solidarity with the police. "Welcome to Camden! Thanks for coming," the police officers said.
Sliwa shook his head and said, "Let's face it, if you were a cop, would you expect anyone to come here voluntarily?"
As day turned to night, residents called out words of encouragement and thanks. But when asked if the presence of the red berets made them feel safer, residents said martial arts training and goodwill could only go so far.
"I don't know what the Guardian Angels are going to do. Our violence is gun violence," said Melissa Johnson, a 19-year-old nursing student. "It's bad out here."
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Mark Egan and Jerry Norton)
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