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Joined: 8/16/2004
Posts: 14
Posted on Wednesday, July 5, 2006 11:34:39 AM
Guardian Angels set to patrol Toronto streets
Last Updated: Wednesday, July 5, 2006 | 11:01 AM ET
CBC News
After several failed attempts to set up shop in Canada, the Guardian Angels are trying once again — with dozens of volunteers set to begin walking Toronto's streets within days.

Holly Weisflock is one of 75 people who will graduate in the city next week as members of the Guardian Angels — the controversial New York-based group whose recruits wear easily identifiable red berets as they patrol the streets to deter crimes.

"It's very empowering as a woman to stand up for something you really believe in, trying to make a difference and be a positive role model," said Weisflock, who trained at a martial arts studio for three months.

Group has yet to take hold in Canada

Even though the organization has expanded to 60 cities around the world since it was founded in 1979, The Guardian Angels has yet to establish a Canadian presence other than an administrative office in Toronto.

Weisflock said she joined the group once before, when the Angels made a second bid to gain a foothold in Toronto in the early 1990s.

Before the failed bid in the early 1990s, the group also briefly opened a chapter in Toronto in the mid-1980s — but both attempts spurred the same sort of controversy that has dogged the group elsewhere.

Critics warned that the Guardian Angels were nothing more than posses of vigilantes, with some accusing them of provoking as much crime as they deter. In both bids, the group pulled out after drawing protests from local police and politicians.

Patrols not just about crime, recruit says

Weisflock, who trained at a martial arts studio for three months, said the patrols are not only about crime.

Guardian Angels also see themselves as just neighbours helping neighbours, she said.

"You wouldn't believe how many needles we picked up in Parkdale so that kids going out to play wouldn't be playing with them or touching them," she said.

Mayor won't meet with Guardian Angels

Neither Toronto's mayor, David Miller, nor police Chief Bill Blair have met with the Guardian Angels. The mayor said he has no plans to.

'I believe in the police policing Toronto.'
-Toronto Mayor David Miller"I believe in the police policing Toronto," said Miller.

However, he said that if the Guardian Angels are not breaking the law, there's nothing that can stop the red berets from patrolling city streets.

Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels while working as a night manager of a McDonald's restaurant in the Bronx in New York. The group began as a group of safety patrollers on the city's streets and subways.

The Guardian Angels recently announced plans to begin walking Edmonton's streets in October.


Angels in red berets

CBC News Online | May 10, 2006

The New York-based Guardian Angels are poised to set up street patrols in Toronto and Calgary in the summer of 2006, but critics warn they are nothing more than a posse of vigilantes provoking as much crime as they stop.

"These are trained gangs," says Bonnie Burstow, a lecturer with the University of Toronto's faculty of education who studies community justice issues. "Why would we want to bring trained gangs to our communities? We don't want American solutions to Canadian problems."

Curtis Sliwa, who formed the Guardian Angels in 1979 while working as a night manager of a McDonald's restaurant in the Bronx, doesn't see it that way, of course.

Wearing easily identifiable red berets, but carrying no weapons, members of Sliwa's anti-crime patrol started out keeping order in New York City's subways. Sliwa claims some of the credit for the huge drop in the number of murders in the city since the early-1980s.

Today, the group has chapters in 60 cities around the world. It opened a chapter in Toronto briefly in the mid-1980s, and again in the early '90s, but vocal protests from local police and politicians drove the Angels out.

The group currently has no Canadian presence beyond an administrative office in Toronto run by national director Lou Hoffer, a former Toronto police constable.

But now Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier, frustrated by increasing inner-city crime and drug use, says he's open to hearing ideas from the Guardian Angels.

Calgary police have not officially welcomed the group, but neither have they spurned it. Insp. Bob Couture says officials want to better examine the group's track record and its plans for Calgary, including how volunteers would be trained.

Sliwa says Calgary police were at least interested in an open discussion, unlike other police agencies – such as those in Toronto and Edmonton – which he says have treated him like a "hemorrhoid in a red beret.''

Edmonton Police Association president Staff Sgt. Peter Ratcliff recently told the Edmonton Sun that his organization isn't interested. "We don't need them or anything like them," he said, brushing off the group as "over the top vigilantes."

Vigilante justice

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines a vigilante as "a member of a group, who undertakes law enforcement and executes summary justice in the absence or perceived inadequacy of legally constituted law enforcement bodies."

Whether or not you believe the Guardian Angels fit the definition of vigilantes, the history of vigilantism is instructive.

The North American experience began in earnest in the southern United States of the 1700s, before the creation of a formal criminal justice system.

These vigilance committees consisted of self-appointed citizens who came together to harass, tar and feather, banish, beat and even kill people they perceived as a threat to their communities.

They were often known as "lynch mobs" because their form of justice consisted mostly of summary execution by hanging.

It was partially out of concern that lynch mobs might move north to the Canadian Prairies that the government of the day sent the North West Mounted Police – the forerunner of the RCMP – west in the mid-1800s.

Today we have socially-sanctioned police forces for enforcing law and order, and courts for passing judgment on those who break the law.

Curtis Clarke, director of the criminal justice program at Athabasca University, says the important point here is that police are accountable to the community for their actions. "The Guardian Angels will say they are accountable under the Criminal Code, just like anyone else," says Clarke. "But they don't have the same mechanisms of accountability [as the police do]."

While citizen-based groups for maintaining order continue to this day, they do not generally mete out the rough justice of previous centuries – think Neighbourhood Watch or Citizens on Patrol.

Clarke, a former police constable, says the crucial difference between these two groups and the Guardian Angels is Angels will make a citizen's arrest when they witness a crime. Neighbourhood Watch and Citizens on Patrol on the other hand watch for and report unusual or criminal activity to police.

"Citizens on Patrol are often linked with police with radios and if they see something, they will inform the police. They don't engage with individuals," says Clarke.

"They're not putting themselves at risk or creating more problems by creating a conflict situation."

Killed 'in the line'

Critics say a tendency to intervene leaves Angels open to charges of provoking as much crime as they stop. The group's website lists six members who have been killed in the "line of duty."

Frank Melvin, 26, was one of them. Melvin was fatally shot by a police officer responding to a burglary in Newark, N.J., in 1981. A grand jury cleared the officer of wrongdoing a year later but the Angels never recovered.

"They sort of drifted away," Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, told the Star-Ledger in New Jersey. Fontoura was a Newark police lieutenant when Melvin was shot and blamed Sliwa for mixed readings between the Angels and police at the time.

"He was a difficult person to deal with. We'd have a cordial meeting with him, and then he'd go in a different direction."

Canadian director Hoffer admits members don’t shy away from intervening, but he defends the group against charges of vigilantism.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he says.

"Ninety per cent of what we do doesn't deal with criminal activity. It's the anti-bullying, anti-violence programs in schools and community centres. We're just good neighbours. We deal with the drunks and vagrants, and help out."

But it's the drunks and the vagrants who need protecting, says Burstow. She's concerned that many Guardian Angels are disenchanted youth who join the group for "a sense of belonging and power and acceptance."

"I can understand that, but I don't want them protecting us," she says.

"When we did have Guardian Angels in Toronto, it was in Parkdale, and who is most at risk there? Psychiatric survivors, drug addicts, the homeless and sex-trade workers.

"We need to find a way to protect their rights. They are vulnerable to vigilante groups."
Joined: 3/1/2002
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Posted on Wednesday, July 5, 2006 11:40:58 AM
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