Monday, September 1, 2008

SFGA history: Guardian Angels back on their feet

Guardian Angels back on their feet

Volunteer patrol returns to help clean up trouble spots

San Francisco Chronicle : Friday, December 17, 2004

The red berets are back.

Two decades after their heyday, the Guardian Angels are again patrolling the streets of the Tenderloin and Mission in their trademark headgear.

After membership dwindled to practically zero in the mid-1990s, the San Francisco chapter of the Guardian Angels is up to 45 active members, with plans for a bigger headquarters and a new chapter in Oakland.

"We're just people who care about our community," said Marcia Martin, a recovering drug addict who joined the all-volunteer safety patrol seven months ago. "We come from all walks of life. We're just trying to make the streets safe for the elderly, moms and kids."

The Guardian Angels are a nonprofit with chapters throughout the United States, mostly concentrated on the East Coast. San Francisco's chapter reached its zenith in the 1980s, with more than 200 members.

These days, the local Angels operate out of a small office at the Hotel Rose on the seediest block of Sixth Street. Members go out on three- to eight- hour shifts, walking the streets in groups of two to six in search of crime.

They're not armed, but that hardly matters. The Angels say their mere presence often deters crime. Easily identifiable in their red berets, fatigues and white sweatshirts with bright red logo, the Angels do leave an impression.

"We know how to spot a perpetrator. We just hang out and the criminals know we're not going to leave," said Juan Carlos Morales, leader of the San Francisco chapter. "When the Guardian Angels are around, it's a lot less likely that crimes will be committed."

San Francisco Police Lt. Larry Minasian said he hasn't had any contact with the local chapter of the Guardian Angels, but in general they can be a beneficial presence.

"As long as they don't overstep their bounds and become pseudo-police, they can be a big help keeping the bad guys down," he said. "As long as they're identifiable and don't create more trouble than they're trying to prevent, they can serve a useful purpose."

The Angels are a familiar presence at Kentucky Fried Chicken at Polk and Eddy streets. In exchange for discounted meals, they stop in periodically and stay for an hour or so.

"If there's someone in the restaurant panhandling, or using the restrooms or bothering the customers, or digging in the garbage, the Angels will talk to them and take them outside," owner Francis Gomez said. "Most of the time they just come in and check up on us, make sure everything is OK."

Gomez said they're great for the neighborhood.

"I think it's a good idea to have them around, as long as they're professional and respectful," he said. "And they are."

The Angels undergo intensive training in martial arts, handcuff use, patrol techniques, the penal code and CPR, conducted in the library at the Hotel Rose. While on patrol, they carry cell phones, first-aid kits, notebooks and handcuffs.

The training program lasts about 10 hours a week for three months, although the martial arts training is ongoing, thanks to a donation from a martial arts studio in San Rafael.

Applicants must be at least 16 years old, have no serious criminal record and be working or attending school.

When they see a crime in progress, they sometimes make citizens' arrests, handcuff the perpetrator and call the police. Once the police arrive, the Angels can help with police reports and serve as witnesses, if necessary. But their main goal is to prevent crimes from happening, often by diffusing tense situations before they escalate.

Recently, Morales and five of his cohorts intervened in a drug-related fight brewing among about 40 people on Sixth Street. Undaunted by the numbers, Morales got in the middle and managed to calm the two sides down, he and Martin said.

"A little guy owed a big guy money, and he didn't have it so the big guy was jumping up and down," Morales said. "I went after the big guy first, and it turned out I knew him because he goes to St. Anthony's. So I told him, 'Do you really want to go to jail?' And that seemed to calm him down."

Morales works at St. Anthony's as a security guard, and the "big guy" was a client there.

"The main thing is communication," he said. "You treat people with respect. They know who I am and what I do, and they respected that. Sure, they might have had guns, but that's a risk you take."

Perhaps the Angels' most effective crime-fighting tool is that many of them live in the neighborhoods they patrol, which gives them a credibility the police might not have.

Morales grew up in foster homes in San Francisco and was spending time with the Border Brothers gang, until he went to a foster care meeting and met a few Guardian Angels.

"I saw their uniforms and asked them what gang they were in," Morales said. "They said, 'We're not a gang, we're the Guardian Angels.' The next day I was checking it out. I loved the fact they were against crime and drugs and were helping the community."

Morales has been a member, on and off, for 14 years. When he's not at his regular job he's organizing trainings, patrols and expansion plans for the Guardian Angels.

Despite his love of crime prevention, however, he says he would never become a police officer.

"I have nothing against cops. My brother is a cop," he said. "But if I became a cop, I know for sure I'd be a corrupt cop. When you put on that cop uniform, you gain so much power. I know I'd do something I'd regret."

Martin, one of three women on the squad, joined seven months ago. A former drug addict and victim of domestic violence, Martin said she joined the Angels as a way of "taking my power back and redirecting my time."

Her particular crusade is to protect mothers, children and the elderly. She also reaches out to women who need drug treatment -- a position she was in not long ago.
"I've been there," she said. "They're not criminals. They need help. We talk to them about a better way of life. We talk to them with a friendly attitude, and communicate with respect. It really works."

But no matter how tied they are to a community, the Angels would have little success at all without the cooperation of the police. In San Francisco, the police ask the Angels' help in patrolling certain blocks or trouble spots. They also inform the Angels of special projects in progress so the Angels can keep clear.

A decade ago, however, that relationship was not so friendly.

One day the Angels chased down an apparent drug offender, slammed him so hard to the sidewalk his head was cut open, and proceeded to handcuff him. They let up just long enough for the alleged perpetrator to show his police badge.

Shortly thereafter, the Angels all but disbanded in San Francisco. But now the chapter has new management, an improved relationship with the police department and increasing membership.

They're currently planning to move to a space across the street, at 72 Sixth St., a former coin laundry facility donated by a nearby hotel. The space remains vacant, however, pending new plaster, paint and cleaning. Once it's refurbished, the Angels hope to use it for training and recreation.

"You can't complain about the neighborhood unless you're prepared to do something about it," said Martin. "Well, we're doing something about it."

Where to go:

The Guardian Angels' San Francisco headquarters are at 125 Sixth St., San Francisco. To volunteer or donate, call the office at (415) 495-0403, or Juan Carlos Morales, chapter leader, at (415) 368-4475.

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