How this community-led group is providing safe walks home amid pandemic

Peter Kerre started SafeWalks NYC on Instagram.

In light of a string of attacks from November to January at subway stations in Brooklyn, Kerre told "Good Morning America" that seeing images of the victims were a catalyst for his idea to organize a community-led effort through social media.

Kerre put the word out to ask for volunteers to help verify residents who wanted to get involved and build a system to walk subway riders to or from their destinations.

"We have been focusing on face-to-face acquaintance, and verifying that we are all residents of the area. Being that the credibility and trust has been mostly based off the trusted relationship with" the citywide StreetRiders NYC group, he said.

Since the new Instagram page's inception last week, Kerre said, "We have already responded to and carried out approximately 37 calls and safely escorted [them]. Our volunteer signups, now at almost 150, are residents from all across the city, eager to do the same at subway stops local to them."

Kerre said the system was designed "to be as non-intrusive as possible" and they do not ask for any personal information, like addresses or contact numbers, in order to facilitate a safe walk.

"A community member reaches out through our Instagram DM with at least an hour notice. They let us know if the request is to escort to or from the subway, and the time to meet," he explained. "If escorting from the subway, as soon as we meet, we inform them that we will escort until wherever they feel safe."

"We have also been keen to constantly talk about, and prepare, how we engage and communicate with the people we are safe-walking. There is no miscommunication that might unknowingly make anyone feel unsafe," he added. "The community member we are escorting is in charge, so for example, they can ask us to maybe escort until a block away from home, for privacy or as they need."

Especially in a large city during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 12-year New York resident said "the separation and solitude brought about by [the virus] has forced us to reimagine our safety and health."

"This isolation has led to more community members having to travel alone, or to be alone in spaces where normally there was safety in numbers," he said. "Amid the pandemic, safety during commuting has been primarily focused on health security and not personal security."

Kerre continued, "Having residents local to the train stops step up to provide this safety by presence not only keeps us safe, but is enabling us to get to know our neighbors better, which is much needed in this time of isolation because many New York residents do not have immediate family here. Having someone to reach out to in case of emergency is necessary for so many different reasons, especially during a pandemic. Our community is our family."

He said that the initial feedback "has been massive and humbling" with dozens of community members asking him how they can help, which he said "is reflective of the New York spirit."

The goal for the future of the program is to "encourage established networks to tap into the neighborhood communities they have been building" to create other safe-walk groups "until this becomes a citywide community-driven initiative," he said.

Kerre also hopes to expand on this idea of community-led safety initiatives with virtual self-defense experts to join and lead virtual sessions for the group's social media followers.

The New York City Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from "Good Morning America" on whether it knew about or condones the SafeWalks NYC group and practice.