By:  Mary Young
Oahu Island News

Twenty-five years ago in the Bronx, a cadre of young volunteers known as Guardian Angels began patrolling New York’s subways and streets. Working in pairs and wearing the red berets that became the group’s signature, their courage and high visibility helped to bolster public confidence and deter crime. The Guardian Angels’ founder was a 25-year-old fast food restaurant manager named Curtis Sliwa.

In May 2004, the Guardian Angels of Japan Inc. and the Guardian Angels Western U.S. Regional office announced plans to open a Hawaii chapter. The leader, Ricardo Garcia, 39, is an Ewa Beach resident and certified Guardian Angel. He patrolled with the Guardian Angels as a teen-ager growing up on Chicago’s south side. Garcia says he resolved to be an angel after seeing the 1981 movie “Fighting Back,” based on Sliwa’s story.

Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels during an era of widespread crime in New York City. Most notorious was the harassment and terror on the subways. At the same time, the city was taking budget cuts and law enforcement officers were being laid off. The timing was right for the Guardian Angels: Sliwa was charismatic and a good promoter, his multi-racial squad was photogenic and the Guardian Angels’ rise coincided with other successful anti-crime initiatives in the city. They won the support of former New York mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and other civic boosters. For the most part, they were successful in fending off accusations of vigilantism and overzealous behavior in their ranks.

The Guardian Angels’ nonviolent methods were so successful that chapters have been established in over 30 cities worldwide. In addition to safety patrols, Guardian Angels teach self-defense, provide disaster assistance and partner with other community organizations. In 1995, the Angels established an on-line safety education and cyber-neighborhood watch called “CyberAngels.”

The Hawaiian Guardian Angels face different challenges than those Sliwa encountered in the 1980s. Criminals have become more sophisticated, the islands’ drug problems persist and budget cuts at all levels of government are making volunteer efforts more essential than ever. Patrolling the streets will not be enough.

“The patrols are the most famous part of the program,” said Sebastian Metz, director of the Guardian Angels’ Western U.S. region, “But the Guardian Angels program is primarily a program of taking young people and giving them an opportunity to be heroes in their community.” For example, he said, Angels might train others in crime prevention techniques or volunteer for clean-up projects. “Until they can start actually doing good to help other people, the concept of helping out is only that: a concept,” he said.

Metz, speaking by phone from his home in Denver, said the success of the local program will depend on how well it resonates with the young recruits.

“Really, we want a program that’s drawn from [places like] Farrington High School,” said Metz. “Because that’s where we can help out the island in two ways: Not only do we have some reassuring presence on the streets, we’re also taking young kids that might otherwise be drawn into [drug] use or some other bad choice and taking them away from that choice.”

In the meantime, Garcia’s recruits – mostly in their 30s and 40s – are training after hours in donated space at Kokua Mau Work Center in Pearl City. Six recruits expect to graduate in September. They are learning martial arts, first aid, CPR and state laws regarding harassment, trespassing, and the justifiable use of physical force. They also learn how to make a citizen’s arrest, a seldom-exercised right that is available to every citizen.

In June, Garcia and recruit Raymond Manuel attended the Guardian Angels’ annual convention in New York. “On our first night we had to make a citizen’s arrest,” said Garcia. He and Manuel were walking through the lobby of their Bronx hotel when they saw someone hit a fellow Angel in the face for no reason. “We had to arrest the guy for assault,” said Garcia, who detained the perpetrator until the police arrived.

One night a week, the local trainees patrol with Garcia in Waikiki. “We’re here to be the eyes of the police and to help the police in whatever they need us,” said Garcia. “The police cannot be everywhere. And it takes two minutes to rob somebody. In an hour, you can rob probably about 40 people.”

Deputy Chief Paul Putzulu of the Honolulu Police Department acknowledged that Garcia has contacted HPD, but no meeting had been scheduled as of press time.  “Basically, if they’re going to be out there just having a presence and they’re calling us so we can respond, that’s fine,” said Putzulu.

“We understand the police have a lot on their plate,” said Metz. “For us, we just want an opportunity to prove ourselves … I think they’ll find that we are a good asset, and they can use us in a number of different ways if they so choose.”

Garcia said they will eventually patrol other neighborhoods, but Waikiki has been good for training and for public relations. The red berets get some double-takes, but Garcia says the feedback on the street has been positive.

Margaret and Tom Fawcett, visiting from the United Kingdom, were strolling down Kalakaua Avenue on a recent weeknight. The couple said they were glad to see Guardian Angels. “It’s quite reassuring, actually,” said Margaret. “I’ve seen tourists getting their bags pinched.”

Sharon White from Philadelphia, having an ice cream cone at the International Marketplace, said, “I think the more eyes the better out there.”

Garcia has already spoken to some Oahu neighborhood watch groups about crime prevention. The Hawaiian Guardian Angels are joining the American Red Cross disaster response team. Future plans call for offering assistance to groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and to local schools through the Junior Guardian Angels. Geared for children between 7 and 11, the early-prevention program teaches values and instills a sense of purpose that youngsters may not receive at home. “They do the same training but they don’t patrol,” said Garcia. “Instead, they do something like a beach cleaning day. The kids wear red berets, pick up, clean up, make sure the area is beautiful, maybe next time they have a party.”

Garcia works for the Transportation Security Administration. The former Marine and Gulf War veteran was stationed at Camp Smith from 1985-1991 and at Marine Corps Base Hawaii-Kaneohe Bay from 1998 until he left the service in 2001.

He wears his long hair in a neat ponytail and speaks with polite reserve, using “ma’am” and “sir.” He displays the Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor emblem on his beret.

Making the decision to start a Hawaii chapter was difficult, he said. “Once I got out of the military, I waited one whole year to make sure that everything was correct and I was ready to take the challenge,” he said. “I had the opportunity to do police work in the Marine Corps and I did a great job, thank God. But I wanted to make sure that I still had it. Because if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to do it.”

Most of the trainees contacted Garcia after seeing news reports of the new Hawaii chapter. “I must have had about 30 to 40 people call me the same day, and my phone didn’t stop,” Garcia said. “When they find out that we don’t carry weapons – that’s the biggest question, do you carry weapons – well, we do not carry weapons. We believe that if you carry a weapon, you’re giving the aggressor the opportunity for him to feel threatened and pull out a weapon. That’s not our objective.”

“I want my children, and the elderly and other children, to be able to walk the streets at night, daytime, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the afternoon, without being worried,” said Garcia.

Bobby Murray, a Wahiawa resident, said he joined the Guardian Angels because of high crime near his home. “I drive through it every day on the way home from work,” said Murray, “And I‘ve always wanted to do something about it but never had the means. Now I have the means.”


The Hawaii chapter of the Guardian Angles
can be reached by calling: 808-689-8854 or online or