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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Angels' Coming to City Streets

The Guardian Angels, the controversial American crime-busters in red berets, are bringing their brand of justice to Moscow, but city police seem less than grateful for the offer to help fight crime. Curtis Sliwa, the Guardian Angels' founder and leader, said his group had been urged by local martial arts clubs to form a Moscow chapter. Western press reports of spiraling crime in the Russian capital had also played their part. But what prompted a decision to come to Moscow next month, Sliwa said, was the news that Moscow's Mayor Yury Luzhkov was setting up civilian brigades to help police -- an apparent reference to Luzhkov's recent decision to beef up the druzhinniki, a Soviet-era volunteer force revived last spring and given additional powers this month. Sliwa, speaking by telephone from New York, said that if Moscow authorities needed help from his volunteer force, the group was ready to pitch in. "Much of the crime is influenced by American-style television programs and movies and the glorification of the mafia," he said. "We're coming to offer an antidote." But Igor Tsyrulnikov, a spokesman for the Moscow police, questioned the wisdom of letting loose a group of American martial-arts experts on the city's streets. He said he feared the group's activities could degenerate into "crime in reverse, fighting crime with criminal methods." He said that if the angels maintained close contact with the police then their support could be useful. But he added that the city already had "a sufficiently powerful force" to combat crime, especially after Luzhkov's move to increase the powers of druzhinniki. Unlike Moscow's druzhinniki, the Guardian Angels have no tradition of a formal relationship with the authorities. Founded 15 years ago in the United States as a voluntary crime-prevention organization, the angels say they offer valuable backup to overstretched police forces in an increasingly violent world. Opponents -- often the police themselves -- accuse the organization of vigilantism. Members walk the streets in big cities throughout the world wearing their distinctive berets and T-shirts with the Guardian Angel's eye-and-cloud logo, intervening in crimes, making arrests and claiming the right to use force where necessary. Tsyrulnikov said that citizens do not have the power of arrest in Russia as they do in some Western countries. Furthermore, under Russian law, a volunteer who uses force to break up a crime can be charged with anything from "petty hooliganism" to attempted murder, depending on the severity of the attack, said Dmitry Gravin of the law firm Norton Rose. According to Martin Skelton of the London branch of the Guardian Angels, no European angel has been charged or convicted as a result of violent intervention in a crime. Colin Hatcher, the group's European coordinator, said that Sliwa will visit Moscow for two weeks with five members from European groups, including two Russian-speakers. Here the angels will talk to people on the streets, hand out group literature and make contacts with the authorities -- the police, the head of the transport system, youth organizations and the Red Cross. Sliwa said that if the response is positive, members will stay on after the initial two-week stay and lay the groundwork for a full-scale organization here. Sliwa seemed confident of a warm reception. "Because of the tremendous rise in street crime they can use people like us in our cowboy boots and red berets," he said. "They can use all the help they can get."