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On patrol with the Guardian Angels: Central Park and Washington Heights

More than 30 years after Curtis Sliwa formed the Guardian Angels, the group still patrols in New York City each night.

The small but dedicated group walks some of the city's toughest neighborhoods in an effort to deter crime. On August 25, amNewYork followed along on a patrol through Washington Heights and Central Park, which was recently added to their daily routine, witnessing firsthand the personal interactions that inevitably occur when someone notices those red berets and jackets.

Before the patrol, a history lesson

Standing outside the Guardian Angels' training center in
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Standing outside the Guardian Angels' training center in Washington Heights, Curtis Sliwa, who started the group in 1979, said the early years of the organizations weren't easy. The Angels were on the receiving end of a lot of backlash from police and city officials, he said.

"We're not mercenaries," he said. "This center is here. People who train here will patrol here, are from here. They're taking responsibility for the community."

Takedown tactics during training

Josiris Hernandez, 24, a member of the Guardian
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Josiris Hernandez, 24, a member of the Guardian Angels, is "taken down" during training by black belt instructor Dennis Torres.

A path winding under the George Washinton Bridge

After taking off from the training center, members
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

After taking off from the training center, members of the Guardian Angels patrol in Washington Heights. The group winds in and out of tunnels, subway stations and dimly lit underpasses.

A man emerges from the shadows and the group eyes him suspiciously. But after he lights a cigarette, the Guardian Angels decide to move on, making their way under the mammoth bridge.

Watching for traffic and drug deals

The Guardian Angels made their way lower under
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

The Guardian Angels made their way lower under the George Washington Bridge, quickly spotting someone sleeping on a mattress perched on the dirt slope. They don't stop, instead sniffing the air, which smelled strongly of marijuana. The area, several said, was known for drug sales.

The patrol moves through dimly lit tunnels and dirt paths

The members of the Washington Heights Guardian Angels
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

The members of the Washington Heights Guardian Angels patrol group climbs into a tunnel, where the smell of marijuana was overwhelming. As they emerge on the other side, several point out that someone had just run out, and would likely run back in as soon as the group passed.

The group starts off toward an unlit dirt path that leads to the Hudson River.

Getting the children involved

Guardian Angels member and trainer Dennis Torres passes
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Guardian Angels member and trainer Dennis Torres passes many people during his patrols, often handing out cards and inviting children to participate in free martial arts training. The group tries to recruit for the Junior Guardian Angels program.

Before rounding 181st Street, Torres hands his card to a woman with young children.

"I've been praying for this," the woman says.

Torres is quick with his reply: "We're the Guardian Angels."

Heading to Central Park to patrol

The group loads up a van and heads
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

The group loads up a van and heads down the FDR to Central Park. Starting on the north end of the park, Sliwa leads the patrol into a largely unlit area that is pedestrian accessible.

Into the dirt path, away from lights

Sliwa starts patrol in Central Park by climbing
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Sliwa starts patrol in Central Park by climbing off the well-trafficked road and onto dirt paths. The group pulls their flashlights out, the only way to ensure they don't step on protruding tree roots or rocks.

A police car sits nearby, but is not visible from the dark paths.

Walking through a potentially dangerous site

Sliwa comes across an area he says is
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Sliwa comes across an area he says is the site of several muggings. Unlike the rest of the path, it is lit by a nearby NYPD portable light unit. A pair of officers come by on mopeds, greeting Sliwa before driving off.

Moments later, the group spots a couple perched on a rock. They spring into action, asking the woman if she's okay and asking if they can take a photo of the pair -- in case there's an issue later. The couple agree.

As the first part of the patrol wraps, Sliwa is recognized

At one point in the patrol, a a
Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

At one point in the patrol, a a man sitting on a bench outside park stops Sliwa. The Guardian Angels founder chats with him before the men in red berets turn back into the park, where they would stay until 1 a.m. when the park closes. They would be back the next night, and the one after that.

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