SCHENECTADY — The Guardian Angels could make landfall in Schenectady again.
Curtis Sliwa, founding member of the volunteer street patrol organization, said his group plans to visit the Hamilton Hill neighborhood no later than mid-August. He said it is in response to multiple requests he has gotten from residents, including seven in the last month.
“We will always get a lot of people asking about Hamilton Hill,” Sliwa said. “It’s what people feel is a dangerous location, especially at night.”
But some residents are skeptical of Sliwa's group, which in the mid-2000s established a Schenectady chapter that soon lost its momentum and its members.
“I don’t think we need the Guardian Angels,” said Marva Isaacs, president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association. “They create more problems than what we have here.”
The Guardian Angels recently made a visit to Albany amid a wave of violence there, trying to establish a chapter in the Arbor Hill and South End neighborhoods, Sliwa said. He said they are currently going through training and orientation and setting up patrols with new recruits.
The group was formed in the late 1970s to address street crime in New York City. It has grown to have several chapters across the country and internationally since then.
The role of the Guardian Angels, according to Sliwa, is to intervene in fights and disputes, calm down situations, and make a citizen's arrest if a crime is being committed.
Sliwa acknowledged they were met with some resistance by both residents and city officials in Albany who said they didn’t want outsiders trying to handle local issues.
But in areas such as Hamilton Hill, outsiders are the ones that are causing problems, Sliwa said, adding that many of them come from the Bronx or Brooklyn.
“People come up, settle up there, may have done a bid in prison upstate, decided they’re not coming back to the five boroughs and the next stop is Hamilton Hill,” Sliwa said. “It’s a problem.”
After the Guardian Angels are done setting up in Albany, Sliwa said they would be coming to Hamilton Hill next.
The plan would then be to meet with the people who reached out to the organization, patrol the streets to try to get a feel for the area and see if there is enough interest to start a chapter there. He said they would then try to set up a meeting with Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford and Mayor Gary McCarthy. But he said they would be willing to meet with elected officials in advance instead, if there is a request to do so.
McCarthy did not return a request for comment for this story.
Sgt. Matt Dearing, a police spokesman, said department leaders would be open to a meeting.
“If and when [Sliwa] reached out to the Police Department directly, then we can sit down and discuss things with him,” Dearing said.
Some residents and community organizers, though, don’t think a visit from the Guardian Angels is needed.
Jamel Muhammad, president and CEO of Youth L.I.F.E. Support Network Inc., said there currently isn’t any spike in crime in the city. In fact, he said, there has been a reduction in shootings, homicides and reports of gunfire over the last few years.
There are numbers to back up that statement.
There was only one shooting death in the city last year. And that occurred on Crane Street, in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood.
“We are not in need of Curtis or the Guardian Angels for our violence issues,” Muhammad said. “If they want to help handle property crime and jaywalking incidents, those are things they can focus on.”
Muhammad’s organization practices young gang violence intervention, trying to prevent violence before it happens. But it also attempts to de-escalate and mediate conflict to avoid retaliation.
Muhammad said he was aware of how the Guardian Angels came into Albany, likening it to “an invasion." He said they told residents they haven’t been able to take control of their situation.
Muhammad said there is no need to come into Schenectady like that, adding they need to come in “humble.”
“It’s a matter of knowing who is doing what in the city,” Muhammad said. “Look to see who is doing what already and bring them to the table for a conversation.”
William Rivas, founder of the city’s Save Our Streets, said before Sliwa does anything in Schenectady, he should be meeting with the community first.
“Those who are in the community working with the people on a regular basis, I think it’s important for [the Guardian Angels] to meet with them first,” Rivas said, as he wondered what the group’s intentions were. “What are their ideas or solutions? Is it stuff we’re already doing? Because there’s a lot of stuff going on in the community right now.”
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield, who lives in Hamilton Hill, also encouraged the group to reach out to community leaders.
“It makes more sense for them to connect with those existing groups in a place where they don’t have those relationships,” Porterfield said. “As opposed to just coming in and effecting change.”
Fred Lee, a former president of the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association who also trains neighborhood watch groups in the city, also said the city’s crime rate has gone down. He attributed this to the work of the police and the various watch groups.
Lee said he recalled the last time the Guardian Angels made their way into Schenectady, a little more than 10 years ago. He said he met Sliwa then and said he had a good conversation with him.
But Lee warned residents against believing a group like the Guardian Angels can fix everything. He also said he isn’t sure about the methods used by the group.
“I’m concerned about sending a message that the way to deal with issues is to go out and confront any criminal behavior,” Lee said.
Sliwa said each chapter, though, must be run by local people. He said the organization's leaders can’t keep coming up from NYC to patrol, but said they will make sure to help get things off the ground.
“If there is a will for local people to get involved, we will work with them through the process,” Sliwa said.
Many community leaders are not entirely opposed to the group coming into the city to help. But they said the Guardian Angels need to be willing to work with the community.
“Don’t just come in and plant your flag,” Rivas said. “Let’s sit down and have a conversation. Bring something to the table before you just start doing.”