The Guardian Angels have come to town. The all-volunteer organization, made famous for patrolling New York subways nearly 30 years ago, conducted its first patrol in Pioneer Park last week.
We're cautiously optimistic that this is good news. That will be so if it leads to a desire by all Utahns to be more vigilant about keeping their eyes open for problems and reporting them to police. It will be less so if it leads to vigilantism.
The Guardian Angels have a mixed reputation. In many cities, police and politicians embrace them as important allies in the fight against crime. But others have worried about their sometimes aggressive tactics, their training courses in martial arts and their recruits, who may themselves be unstable. The Boston Globe last year interviewed a criminology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who noted there is no hard evidence the group has had an impact on crime or made people safer.
The group has been making efforts to expand nationwide lately, going into cities where people might not expect a major crime problem, such as Akron, Ohio, Davenport, Iowa, Halifax, Nova Scotia and now Salt Lake City. The founder, Curtis Sliwa, says this is a response to a growing crime problem, and to the anti-snitching culture that makes many people too scared to testify concerning crimes they have witnessed.
It's a matter of common sense that a Guardian Angels presence can be a welcomed sign in a place like Pioneer Park, where drug dealers and other petty criminals have defied politicians and police for decades. Small wonder that Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon was on hand last week to praise that type of community action.
Police know it is impossible to be all places at all times. The Angels give them extra sets of eyes and ears in high-crime areas. Even if they get a bit feisty when making citizen's arrests, the Angels don't cost taxpayers a dime.
But the Salt Lake area is not a place of unusually high crime rates. In most Utah neighborhoods, the Angels are not necessary. A neighborhood watch will suffice. Neighborhood watch volunteers keep a constant eye on things and, rather than confront criminals, immediately report them. The constant presence alone of a neighborhood watch vehicle at night can deter criminals.
If the Guardian Angels can clean up Utah's toughest crime areas, their presence is welcome. But it would be wise to keep one eye on the Angels, as well.