Guardian Angels planning weekly Saturday visits to Greenport

Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa at Tuesday's community meeting in Greenport. (Credit: Grant Parpan)
Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa at Tuesday’s community meeting in Greenport. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Nearly a decade after they first arrived in Greenport, the Guardian Angels will once again maintain a regular presence in the village, this time hoping to deter gang violence.

The organization’s founder told a crowd of more than 40 at St. Agnes R.C. Church that walking the streets of Greenport will be the first step in the red berets’ return to the community.

“The patrols will be here,” Guardian Angels CEO Curtis Sliwa said Tuesday night. “That’s one major step in the right direction.”

• Audio recording of Tuesday’s meeting

• Guardian Angels recent visit to the North Fork and initial reaction from local leaders

Mr. Sliwa said after the meeting that the patrols will consist of visits from the New York City-based Guardian Angels every Saturday night, which he referred to as a prime time for “gang banging.” The primary focus for the men and women roaming the streets will be to cultivate relationships with school-age youths from the Latino community, who Mr. Sliwa said are prime targets for gang recruitment.

Another key component in making sure the village addresses its gang issue, he explained, is establishing a presence within the schools. He asked the community to encourage local youths to sign up for the Guardian Angels’ junior program, which he said provides students with an alternative to joining a gang. He said the program, based in Washington Heights, is flexible and can be integrated into existing school programs.

Mr. Sliwa, who founded the organization in 1979, said while he believes gangs are less prevalent on the North Fork than elsewhere on Long Island, they are definitely present here and community action is necessary to combat the issue.

“For those that do something, they have less of a problem,” he said. “For those that don’t, you know what, they’re going to have continued problems. It’s not going away.”

The Guardian Angels established its first Long Island chapter in 2005, after former Greenport mayor Dave Kapell, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, invited the organization to help tackle the issue of drug sales in the village.

Residents involved in that earlier effort contacted Mr. Sliwa last month after four alleged members of MS-13 attacked two men from the rival 18th Street gang with guns and a machete in Southold. Police say the fight started at Third Street Park in Greenport and one of the four suspects charged in the shooting is a 16-year-old student at Greenport High School.

A small group of Guardian Angels visited Greenport and Southold last Monday to canvass the area and hand out fliers. They started at the Mitchell Park carousel around 5 p.m., then went to the Third Street playground and basketball courts before heading to Main Road in Southold. Their initial visit lasted about six hours, Mr. Sliwa said.

“They came across quite a few young ladies who are definitely involved with MS-13,” Mr. Sliwa said last week. “They bragged about it through the gang signs, had the tattoos. They weren’t posers or wannabes.”

Mr. Sliwa said the teenagers, who were hanging out near Third Street Park, approached the Guardian Angels and asked where they were from.

After explaining that they were from New York City, the Guardian Angels asked the group of girls about their tattoos, which Mr. Sliwa described as “MS-13 tags.”

Mr. Sliwa said that although community members, mostly business owners, gave him the cold shoulder when he pointed out a growing presence of gangs last time around, he described Tuesday’s meeting as “positive.”

Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate was also present at the meeting and vowed to organize a group of volunteers to open up communication with the Greenport School District about the possibility of bringing the Guardian Angels’ junior program into the schools. Mr. Sliwa said the program is free and includes self-defense classes.

Local Board of Education representatives Heather Wolf from Greenport, Laura Jens-Smith from Mattituck and Janice Caufield from Oysterponds also attended the meeting. No school superintendents were present.

Ms. Wolf described Tuesday’s discussion as “outstanding” and said she looks forward to sharing details about the Guardian Angels’ plans with fellow board members and parents.

“I’m in no position to talk about what’s appropriate for the school, but I was impressed by their proven ability to reach the Latino community,” she said. “That, I believe, isn’t being done any other way within the school.”

Greenport Village deputy mayor George Hubbard, who attended with village trustee Julia Robins, said he doesn’t anticipate too much pushback from the community over the Guardian Angels’ presence this time around.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a bad thing,” he said. “Anything that will make the community safer is a good thing.”

As for the next step, Mr. Hubbard said the village and Southold Town boards plan to meet with police and school officials to discuss the Guardian Angels’ plans. That meeting, he said, will not be open to the public.

A follow-up meeting with the Guardian Angels will then be scheduled, according to Mr. Hubbard.

Mr. Sliwa said he isn’t surprised by that timeline and looks forward to working with the community.

“I know we don’t get invited right from the jump street,” he said. “Once we’re here and we’re doing things, which we’ve already started to do, then I would expect that we would become a participant, especially because of our experience in this area.”

No Southold Town Board or police department representatives were present Tuesday, but town officials said after the meeting that they are taking the gang issue seriously.

“I have been discussing the issue daily with Chief [Martin] Flatley,” Supervisor Scott Russell wrote in an email. “I know that he is coordinating his efforts with [District Attorney Thomas] Spota and other law enforcement agencies. I am quite confident that this approach will be most effective at addressing the issue of gang violence in Southold.”

Chief Flatley wrote in an email that he wasn’t sure it would have been appropriate for the police department to attend the meeting.

“I was not certain as to the agenda,” he wrote.

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Editor’s note: The initial version of this web article published Tuesday night was replaced Wednesday with an updated story, which will also appear in Thursday’s edition of The Suffolk Times newspaper.