You might see a group of men patrolling the streets and subway stations of Center City, offering to help people. Their uniforms consist of red berets and white T-shirts emblazoned with the all-seeing Eye of Providence — a symbol meant to suggest they’re looking out for the common good.

They’re not law enforcement. They’re the Guardian Angels, an unarmed civilian group with a mission to deter crime.

But after three months of group members cruising Philadelphia’s streets, some critics and law enforcement officials worry their tactics are crossing the line.

A nonprofit formed in New York City in 1979 by recent Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa, the Angels created neighborhood safety patrols to help residents amid a crime surge and decreased police presence. Dozens of beret-wearing local chapters have emerged in other cities.

With the Philadelphia police beset by chronic staffing issues, slow response times, and rising crime, Northeast Philadelphia resident TJ Cahill founded the Guardian Angels of Philadelphia chapter in March, with five members to date.

“Every patrol, I go hours without seeing the police,” said Cahill, 43. “The citizens love us — women, children, senior citizens, gay, straight, all walks of life.”

Cahill and his troop typically hang out at events like last month’s Italian Market Festival, or conduct safety sweeps along the El or Broad Street Line.

But on two recent occasions, Cahill boasted on Facebook that he confiscated “drugs” from people experiencing homelessness in Center City, posting one person’s photo on social media.

“Thanks to the Philadelphia Guardian Angels this guy and his friends don’t have their stash of illegal drugs no more!!” Cahill wrote, accusing the man of bullying people to give him money.

The posts drew ire from residents and recovery advocates, who criticized Cahill for creating more problems than he’s solving. The Philadelphia Police Department said that confiscating other people’s property is not only dangerous but “could also potentially be a crime in and of itself.”

“The PPD doesn’t condone, promote or encourage vigilantism in any form,” said Cpl. Jasmine Reilly, a department spokesperson. “While we support people taking an active role in keeping their communities safe in a number of various ways, the best and safest way to do that is to be a good witness, and to report illegal activity to the Police Department.”

People who wish to help other people experiencing a crisis on the streets may call Project Home’s 24-7 hotline at 215-232-1984 or 1-877-222-1984.

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District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office echoed those sentiments, as did the SEPTA Transit Police. Authorities were not aware of official complaints lodged against Cahill or members of the group.

In an interview, Cahill said he did not search anyone. He picked up the baggies of what he believed were drugs from the ground next to individuals who were injecting in plain sight of downtown strollers, he said. He called the police, but no one came, so he walked the substance to the 9th District station, where an officer told him to “throw it in the nearest dumpster.”

Cahill worked in the restaurant industry before suffering injuries that put him out of a job, he said. Now he’s a full-time volunteer for the Angels, patrolling five days a week and attending community events to recruit members. The national chapter provides some funds for uniforms and other incidentals, but he said there’s no money in it for him.

“Just to make people feel safer — that’s payment in itself,” he said.

Conflicting views

In New York, most of the group’s activities are community-oriented, but the Guardian Angels have danced with controversy. Last year, a member resigned from the group after cell phone video showed him getting in a scuffle with two New York subway riders.

NYPD brass have at times referred to the group as a “paramilitary” and urged its members to stay home. But other New York police officials and mayors have been friendlier toward the Angels, who say residents appreciate their presence on the streets.

“For every one person who’s not happy with us, I get 10 or 20 who are happy,” said Cahill.

Cahill said the group answers to founder Sliwa, who did not return requests for comment. He doesn’t place stock in criticisms from residents who accuse him of picking on the vulnerable.

Nicole Canale, a recovery advocate in the Philly region who lost her sibling to an overdose, said she asked Cahill to be more proactive in helping people with drug addiction, like carrying overdose-reversing Narcan or connecting people to social services.

“These people could do great things,” Canale said. “I just feel that they need to branch out and work on building in the community that they are trying to serve.”

Jose Marco, an organizer of ACT UP and the Philadelphia Overdose Prevention Network, wanted Cahill to take his patrols to Kensington to try to put a dent in gun violence and the drug trade. Cahill said he won’t.

“This guy comes from Northeast Philly to Center City to take what he says are drugs from homeless Black people — that’s a coward move,” said Marco. “It’s sickening.”

Law enforcement agencies are meanwhile trying to boost their own patrols.

The police shortage stems from dwindling recruitment, a spike of retirements, and some officers abusing a disability benefit. SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said recruitment and attrition have downsized the transit force from 230 to 210 officers, but he noted that SEPTA recently implemented a fleet of 80 outreach specialists to offer help and deter crime. (They are not authorized to detain people or confiscate property.)

“We wouldn’t want somebody who’s not law enforcement to step into a situation like that,” Busch said of Cahill’s practice.

Cahill has brushed with the law himself, according to court records.

He received probation over an incident involving a stolen car in 1999, which he called a youthful mistake, and received a summary offense for criminal mischief in 2015 after he said a neighbor accused him of slashing their car tire.

Cahill was arrested in June 2020 for pepper-spraying people who he said were hurling rocks at him during the violent Marconi Plaza protests in South Philadelphia. He said he was acting in self-defense. He was found not guilty on assault charges but cited for disorderly conduct.

“If I didn’t have that pepper spray I was going to be killed,” he said. “Me waiting till I was hit five times with rocks shows how restrained I am.”