Monday, September 22, 2008

San Francisco Guardian Angels to help Vallejo chapter

Vallejo is starting a Guardian Angels chapter and San Francisco will be assisting them, along with the Oakland and San Jose chapters, to get up and running. Some former San Francisco Guardian Angels who now live in Vallejo are among the new chapter.

A group of Vallejoans are interested in establishing a Vallejo chapter of the Guardian Angels, with the assistance of regional advisor Freddy H. Batres Madrid, center. Vallejoans Gilberto Gonzalez, Jimmy Marlos, Omar Martinez, Marc Garman and James Mathews Jr. are currently in training with the group. (Mike Jory/Times-Herald)

Locals hope Guardian Angels will soon watch over Vallejo

Group trying to establish local chapter of volunteer safety patrol

By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN/Times-Herald staff writer

Article Launched: 09/21/2008

All who join the Guardian Angels do so for slightly different reasons, though a common thread is the desire to improve their city's quality of life.
For the past few weeks, efforts have been under way to start a chapter of the unarmed, red-beret-wearing volunteer safety patrollers in Vallejo.

Gilberto Gonzalez, 46, leader of the new Vallejo chapter, said he's volunteering to make the city safer for himself and his family.

"I'd like to get back in shape and see if I can work out with them - go out into the streets. We don't have as many (police) officers as we used to have," said the former San Francisco Guardian Angel and married father of three.

"This seems like an opportunity to get back in touch with the Guardian Angels and maybe bring a chapter to Vallejo. If you like action, it's good."

Vallejo resident and business owner Omar Martinez said he's signed on to put his military training to use serving his community.

"I was a combat medic for eight years, and I was thinking, I have this training, what can I do with it?" Martinez said. "This seemed like a good idea, to help the police help make the community safer."

A Vallejo Police Department spokesman said the department backs the idea of the group opening a chapter here.

"In general, we support any community effort that contributes to the safety of the city," said Vallejo Police Capt. David Jackson. "I know there have been some problems back east with their relationship with some police departments over the years, but we don't expect those problems here."

According to, the organization was founded in New York nearly 30 years ago by Curtis Sliwa, who is still involved.

The site says Sliwa was a McDonald's night manager in a crime-ridden area of the Bronx, who became "sickened and saddened by his city's deterioration, took matters into his own hands," and formed a voluntary, weapons-free patrol of 13 to "take the subways, the streets and the neighborhood back from crime."

More than 20 chapters have sprung up worldwide since then.

In the beginning, New York City Mayor Ed Koch publicly opposed the group, as did many government officials in other cities where the group attempted to open a chapter. Koch later reversed his stance on the organization, which has since won the support of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and others, according to the Guardian Angels' Web site.

The Oakland City Council recently voted to include the Guardian Angels in its emergency preparedness plan - a first for the organization, said Cristina Fernandez, head of the Oakland chapter.

A Guardian Angels chapter wouldn't interfere with the Vallejo Police Department's cadet program in any way, and since it is a citizen-driven organization, liability issues are no different than with other citizens, Jackson said.

"We're not recruiting them or asking them to come," so if something were to happen, the city and police department would not be responsible, he said.

Guardian Angels are legally "just normal private citizens. Just ordinary citizens, just a little better trained," said Erick Wong, the group's California Regional Director. How many volunteers are needed for a patrol "depends on the area's special problems and how well trained the members are, but usually we try for six to eight," Wong said. How chapter members cooperate with police varies by chapter, he added.

"In Oakland, for instance, we're officially working with the police department," Wong said. "In other cities, they just ask us to be good eyes and ears."

In the decade Wong's been with the group, he said he's never seen anyone - Angel or detainee - injured.

"We're pretty well trained and knowledgeable about what we can and can't do," he said. "We use the minimum force necessary, if we have to get physical. But that's always a last resort. We try to prevent by our presence, to de-escalate with words. But if it's really serious, we'll intervene and make a citizen's arrest."

Jackson said a dwindling police staff makes the need for community involvement more acute than ever.

"Given the critical staffing level in the police department, we need to rely on the citizens to be our eyes and ears in the community," Jackson said. "So, joining an organization like this can be helpful. When criminals know community members are watching and will report crimes, they're less likely to engage in criminal behavior."

Martinez, 38, said the new Vallejo chapter's members have already begun training in Oakland and have met with the organization's San Diego-based regional director.

Training includes learning patrol techniques, how to function as a unit, communication skills and community outreach, Wong said. It also includes learning how to de-escalate a situation verbally, basic self defense and how to make a lawful citizen's arrest, he added.

"With the bankruptcy, some people are under the impression that Vallejo is unprotected, that there are only 20 cops here," Martinez said. "Of course, that's wrong, and we're not the police, but the police can't be everywhere at all times. So, if you're going to cry about the crime, you should do something. This is what I'm doing."

Eric Fisher, of Vallejo, leader of the Vallejo Intertribal Council, also said he'd like to help bring a chapter here.

"There's a lot of youth in town that need guidance," Fisher said. "I think a local Guardian Angels chapter would help the citizens of Vallejo feel safe to go out to have dinner and not feel threatened by the riffraff. But also to do some outreach to the youth who are hanging around, to keep them off the streets and from getting in trouble."

A former gang member, who "luckily got myself straightened out," Fisher now has three children "and I'd like to guide my kids to make good choices. I feel the Guardian Angels would help with that. They could provide a better caliber of role models than the drug dealers and gangsters."

Wong said the Guardian Angels "do not invade cities," setting up branches only when invited. Each new branch is affiliated with the New York City-based Alliance of Guardian Angels, he said.

Once someone calls the group, representatives of a nearby chapter will act as a liaison to help that person, in this case Marc Garman of Vallejo, to get a local chapter going, Wong said. It is not instantaneous or easy, he said. The patience required is good training for the level-headedness desired in a good Guardian Angels member, according to the group's literature. The organization looks for level-headedness, dependability, persistence and responsibility in new chapter leaders, the literature notes.

Already established Guardian Angels will drive and walk around the community seeking a chapter to assess the type, scope and intensity of the area's problems, Wong said.

Vallejo is in step five of a six-step process for opening a chapter. That step - recruitment and training - starts with walks around areas with high pedestrian traffic, Wong said. The Angels' presence at two consecutive Wednesday Night Celebrations in downtown Vallejo, met that requirement, said Garman.

Training is taking place with members of the Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco chapters, several of whose members have come to Vallejo in recent weeks to help with downtown security, Garman said.

"It is critical for newcomers to the organization to learn the techniques the Angels have evolved over the years that are both effective and help ensure safety," he said. "The other Guardian Angels chapters will give us logistics and manpower support until Vallejo is able to stand on its own."

New chapters eventually establish their own fundraising programs, though initially, start-up money for items like berets comes from New York, the regional office and a nearby established chapter - in this case, Oakland, Wong said.

There are officially six people so far in the Vallejo chapter, Garman said. It's not an army, but it's a beginning, he said.

"Building a chapter in Vallejo will take time, but I think we have a good start and mostly positive response from the community," he said.

Garman said that in his time as a Guardian Angel in San Francisco, he saw a positive difference made.

"We do a lot of things police do not," he said. "The goal is not to perform the role of police, but to provide some overlap and do things police might not do. For example, we walked people to their cars after the (Wednesday Night Celebration) event. Often, incidents take place on the periphery of events like that. By providing a presence at the edges where police may not be able to provide coverage, Guardian Angels can have a real positive impact on overall safety."

The group has already rendered other services, as well, he said.

"At the last Wednesday Night event, we also broke up one fight," he said.

"One gal was trying to brain another with a 'Club' auto lock. Fortunately, we were able to intervene before anybody got hurt, and we prevailed on a third party to put the 'Club' in their trunk until things cooled off."

The Guardian Angels have also delved into the field of education in recent years through its CyberAngels program, which "patrols" the Internet. The group's school safety programs are mandated in New York and New Jersey, the Web site says. The organization has developed cooperative ventures with educational institutions to train teachers in classroom management and protocol, the site says.

Though some may feel the presence of the Angels in some way advertises Vallejo's need for extra protection, others say the city's reputation for crime, deserved or not, is already well developed.

"Having more citizens concerned with everyone's well-being is good," said Vallejo Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Rick Wells. "Do we need an explicit organization or group to do that? I don't know. But we're downtown, near the bus station, and we'd probably welcome them just like we did the bicycle cops or anyone else who has the safety of the area in mind."

Robert Briseno of Vallejo Main Street, an organization comprised of downtown business owners, said the consensus of opinion about a Guardian Angels chapter in Vallejo, is positive.

"We're encouraging it, and offering it as much support as we can," Briseno said. "At our most recent meeting, everyone seemed positive about it and I think we'd all like to see crime decrease."

If you're interested in volunteering for the Guardian Angels Vallejo Chapter e-mail

• E-mail Rachel Raskin- Zrihen at or call 553-6824.

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