The Guardian Angels have come to Kensington.

With their signature red berets and their famous founder, they are bringing more eyes - and even more attention - to the search for a killer who raped and strangled three women there recently.

Since Sunday, the Guardian Angels have been patrolling the neighborhood, handing out fliers, escorting women, and offering to be a conduit of information.

"Our goal is to be out there several hours a day and do that as many days as we can," said Scott Gallagher, the regional commander for the all-volunteer group of anti-crime activists.

Gallagher, a former police officer in Montgomery County, said there could be from four to 15 Philadelphia members walking the streets at night, and members from New York have been busing down to patrol during the day.

"Are we the end-all, be-all solution to the problems of Kensington? No," he said. "We're not going to be the solution to a large problem, but we can be a part of it."

Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa has been in Kensington, and said he would return this weekend. He called the presence of the Guardian Angels a "visual deterrent."

"It makes people feel better," Sliwa said. "They know who we are, what we do."

The group, started amid the New York City crime wave of the 1970s, has expanded with chapters in 140 cities and more than a dozen countries, while Sliwa has become a radio talk show host and celebrity in his own right.

But both Sliwa and his organization have been occasional lightning rods for criticism - former New York Mayor Ed Koch once dismissed them as ineffective vigilantes.

Greg Bucceroni is a Philadelphia anti-crime activist who has known Sliwa since their days together during the Son of Sam murders in New York in the 1970s. Bucceroni since has become a vocal critic of Sliwa and his tactics, calling him a self-promoter who drops into high-profile crimes and then leaves "the minute it's no longer newsworthy."

"My beef with Curtis is, stop coming here and selling false dreams and then moving on," he said. "A lot of sizzle and not a lot of steak. That's Curtis as an activist."

Bucceroni particularly objects to the Guardian Angels' practice of making citizens' arrests. He said he focused on victims and their needs, not trying to catch criminals.

But Sliwa is unapologetic about his methods.

"We are the most aggressive, no question. We push the envelope," he said. "Just because I put on a red beret and a red satin jacket, it doesn't mean I'm giving up my right to make a citizen's arrest."

Sliwa said all his volunteers go through training before hitting the streets. He said he had to physically intervene between a couple of drunken Eagles fans who began fighting in Kensington after Sunday's game.

"We know when to grab somebody and when not to," he said. "That's part of the training."

Law enforcement officials warned this week against vigilante justice in Kensington, but that message was not sparked by the presence of the Guardian Angels.

Rather, the warning came after fliers were distributed falsely identifying a neighborhood man as the strangler. Sliwa said he was given a handful of fliers and immediately recognized them as bogus.

Police Lt. Raymond Evers described the Angels as "another set of eyes and ears on the street," and welcomed their presence as long as they left the investigation to the police.

"If they can make people feel a little safer, we're all for it," Evers said.

Sliwa said the Guardian Angels mainly are serving as escorts - several businesses have asked them to accompany female employees leaving work - and offering to pass information from people who don't want to talk with the police.

He said he hoped to get new volunteers from the neighborhood, which he said has one of the most entrenched and organized drug trades he has seen.

"I haven't seen that kind of open-air drug dealing since the '80s in New York," he said. "There are few areas like that left in North America."

The Guardian Angels, a nonprofit, raised about $1.7 million last year and Sliwa took no salary from the organization, according to the group's public tax filing.

The area could see even more of the Guardian Angels in the new year - Sliwa said he plans to give a proposal to the mayor and police chief of Camden offering assistance if massive police layoffs proceed there as planned.

"If you lay off half the police force in Camden . . . knowing how much crime is there already, you're just writing the place off," he said.