Here Come the Red Berets: The Guardian Angels Are Poised to Start Street Patrols in Davenport Print
News/Features - Local News
Wednesday, 21 March 2007 02:34

625-cover-thumb.jpg Sixteen years ago, Jeremy Boots heard about the Guardian Angels, did some research on the public-safety organization, and wrote to its New York City headquarters. The group, best known for patrolling neighborhoods and public-transportation systems with teams of unarmed volunteers, sent him its newsletter and then tried to recruit him.

"They were wanting me to start a chapter up" in Davenport, he said.

That was a little more commitment than Boots was willing to make. He was 15 years old at the time, and his initial attraction to the Angels, he said, was the uniform, with its signature red beret. "It wasn't something that was on my priority list," he said this week about starting a chapter here. "Or my Mom's."

Boots is now 31 years old and a former Marine. When Davenport Alderman Bill Lynn said last fall that he wanted to start a Guardian Angels chapter in Davenport, Boots' mother sent him an article on the subject, and he's now the local contact.

Boots' fundamental interest in the Guardian Angels (beyond the uniform) is that its members are doing something. "They're proactive," he said. "They're helping the community out. They're for making it safer."

Earlier this month, Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa came to Davenport, leading several public meetings and touring neighborhoods. He told the River Cities' Reader last week that he expects to have the first Quad Cities Guardian Angels trained and patrolling the streets of Davenport by early July.

So despite concerns from Davenport Police Chief Mike Bladel, the Guardian Angels are coming to Davenport.

The group has a 28-year history and a sterling record when it comes to safety and legality. Although six Guardian Angels have died from injuries sustained while patrolling, the group's last serious injury came in 1992, when Sliwa was shot by the Gambino crime family. The Guardian Angels now have 5,000 members in nine countries and 82 cities, Sliwa said.

That record, he said, suggests that although there is resistance in some corners of Davenport government, the risk to the city is minimal.

But the larger issue is whether the Guardian Angels are effective - and the evidence is mostly anecdotal.

Sliwa, though, is undeterred by criticism or questions.

"Think of it the way you would in taking chicken soup if you had a cold," he said, paraphrasing one-time Guardian Angels opponent Ed Koch. "It certainly isn't going to hurt you, and there is an argument that it's going to help you."


A Sense of Helplessness

Sliwa, a conservative talk-radio host in New York City, is a consummate communicator, and during our interview was able to rattle off the names of neighborhoods and problem areas he visited: 14th and 15th near Marquette and Gaines, Goose Creek Heights, Davenport Manor, Horizon Homes. (He couldn't quite get his mouth around "Bettendorf," however.)

In each neighborhood, Sliwa said, he heard the same refrain: "Gotta do something about the gangs and drugs."

"There's a sense of helplessness in these neighborhoods," Lynn said.

The Ward 5 alderman said that he was prompted to contact the Guardian Angels because he didn't see any fresh ideas to combat Davenport's crime problem - with a crime index 6 percent higher in 2005 than it was in 2003. Hiring police officers is a popular but expensive option, with each officer costing roughly $100,000 a year. "Where's our plan to solve our problem?" he said. "Whatever we're doing is not working."

The community certainly seems receptive to the Guardian Angels. Lynn said roughly 100 people attended a Saturday-afternoon meeting at United Neighbors the weekend the Guardian Angels came to town, and 20 citizens showed up for a demonstration patrol on Sunday. "I literally had people fighting to take them out to dinner," he said.

Lynn credited Boots with bringing Sliwa to town. While the alderman had left messages for the Guardian Angels, he said, Boots was the one who finally talked to the organization. "He must've talked to them a hundred times," Lynn said. "He was the guy making contacts."

It might appear odd that the Guardian Angels are coming to a city as small as Davenport. But Sliwa said that crime is a growing problem in many smaller communities. "The fastest demand for Guardian Angels is in cities 100,000 or less," he said. "The big cities have the resources. They can put together the special task forces. They get special attention from their state legislatures. ... Place like Davenport ... they're a dollar short, and they're never going to have enough cops, and it's not their fault."

The next step for the Guardian Angels is to train its recruits. As of last week, Sliwa said, roughly 30 people had expressed interest in joining the Davenport Guardian Angels. "If we can get enough recruits ... who are actually from the other side of the Mississippi, the Illinois side, we might be able to have a presence there, too, simultaneously," Sliwa said.

Recruits will be going through training led by Michael Fuentes (the organization's Chicago coordinator), Sliwa said, and they'll be meeting with him this weekend. Guardian angels must be 16 years old, and Fuentes said members must buy their own beret ($15 to $20) and appropriate footwear. The white Guardian Angels T-shirts, he said, remain the property of the organization.

Guardian Angel training has four components: physical conditioning, including martial arts; legal education; CPR and first aid; and the Guardian Angel patrol technique. "You have to withstand a lot of verbal use and physical intimidation without responding, and physical force is only used as an absolute last measure," Sliwa said.

He said the organization will need to graduate 12 to 16 applicants in Davenport, "and then we can grow from there. We'll also have to target one community to have an impact initially."

Patrols include four or more people, and a graduating class of 12 would enable to Guardian Angels to target two neighborhoods initially, Sliwa said. "Fourteenth and 15th between Marquette and Gaines can use a division of Marines coming back from Fallujah, never mind Guardian Angels," Sliwa said. He added that the organization's priorities would include the Heatherton Heights and Horizon Homes areas.


Eyes and Ears

Bladel said he supports community involvement in preventing crime. "We need all the eyes and ears that we can get," he said. "We think it's encouraging that people are paying attention ... and willing to stand up. I never see it as an insult that people are concerned about crime in their neighborhoods."

But he said he is uncomfortable with the Guardian Angels policy of making citizen's arrests and doing things such as breaking up fights. "I cannot endorse the philosophy of an organization that is planning to train its personnel to directly intervene," Bladel said.

And that element of the Guardian Angels is not negotiable, Sliwa said. "The concept of citizen arrests and physical intervention is the linchpin of what makes us different from block watch and crime watch," he said. "Think of Guardian Angels of just taking it up a notch from block watch and crime watch."

Bladel's concern is common among police departments. "You worry about vigilantism," said Captain Mike Scally of the police department in Peoria, Illinois. He said the Guardian Angels have been in Peoria for roughly two years.

"Our experience with them has kind of eased those [concerns] personally," Scally said. He and other members of the police department attended Guardian Angels training sessions, and "that helped to give us a little insight," he said. It didn't hurt that the leader of the Peoria Guardian Angels teaches classes for police and has an existing relationship with the sheriff's office.

Scally said his city's experience with the Guardian Angels has been "pretty good," and that the police department has given the group a police radio to use. "They're extra eyes and ears to us," Scally said. "They're not trying to take action."

Boots similarly said that he is skeptical that a Guardian Angels outfit in the Quad Cities would be making many citizen arrests or actively intervening. People volunteering for the organization, he said, want to help the community, but they probably won't put themselves at risk the way a police officer would.

Bladel's concern, realistically, is more theoretical than practical. According to Sliwa, the Guardian Angels have never had to defend themselves against a lawsuit: "We've never been sued. Never have had a lawsuit filed against us for detaining the wrong person, using excessive physical force, violating anyone's rights."

No lawsuits of any sort against the Guardian Angels as a national organization or any of its subsidiaries? "That is correct," he said.

Bladel said he wants to ensure that the city does not take actions that would make the Guardian Angels a de facto agent of the Davenport Police Department. But that doesn't mean the Davenport police will be hostile. "You make this a welcoming environment for them," Bladel said.

The city will offer some training for the Guardian Angels, and the department will have a crime-prevention officer who will serve as a liaison between the police and the Angels, Bladel said.

Furthermore, the Scott County sheriff's department will conduct background checks on people interested in becoming Guardian Angels.

Scott County Sheriff Dennis Conard, who attended one of the Guardian Angels meetings earlier this month, said he doesn't share Bladel's concerns: "From the presentation I heard, there is no liability" for law-enforcement agencies. "They're fully independent from the Scott County sheriff and the Davenport Police Department."

As for helping with background checks, Conard said: "They need to be done. ... There seemed to be a great deal of community support to at least try it."

Sliwa has plenty of experience dealing with skeptical police departments, but he sounded miffed that Bladel didn't at least have a representative at the community meetings earlier this month. Mayor Ed Winborn attended one meeting, as did Bettendorf's police chief, Sliwa said.

"The person who should've had a representative there didn't," he said, referring to Bladel. "He certainly had been made aware we were coming. ... I felt that was so ironic."

Support of the Guardian Angels from public officials and law-enforcement agencies is not merely a matter of politics.

Alderman Keith Meyer said the police department's attitude toward the Guardian Angels is symptomatic of an administration that's out of touch with the concerns of its citizens. "We have some real crime issues in the city that the citizenry don't feel [City Administrator Craig] Malin or Bladel are making a priority to address," Meyer said in an e-mail.

And public support for government leaders has been essential to the Guardian Angels' safety record over the past 14 years, Sliwa said. He said a turning point for the Guardian Angels came in 1993, when Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor of New York City. Prior to that, the organization hadn't shed its "vigilante" tag.

"It's been smooth sailing ever since," Sliwa said. "When he embraced us publicly and officially, it made it a lot easier in other cities which had originally not worked with us to embrace us ... ." And in communities without Guardian Angels, "it made it easier for them to embrace us right out of the box."

Giuliani's endorsement of the Guardian Angels wasn't the only difference-maker for the organization. Changes in the telecommunications industry meant that Guardian Angels could easily communicate with each other and with police. Furthermore, the organization has expanded its reach, adding anti-bullying education, youth programs, and Web monitoring to its arsenal.

"The combination of cooperation, communication, and better training techniques I think eliminated fatalities, and as a result we've had no serious major injuries or setbacks since 1993," Sliwa said.

The situation has swung so dramatically, Sliwa said, that Washington, D.C., Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey (now retired) encouraged the Guardian Angels to make citizen's arrests. "He gave us police radios," Sliwa said. "We are in direct contact with the police officers on the beat, and we directly answer to the watch commanders who are in charge of the sectors. That to me is the best-case scenario."


Are Angels Effective?

Sliwa doesn't claim that the Guardian Angels reduce crime. Instead, he notes that thousands of citizen's arrests have been made, and "the fact that communities will extol our virtues."

And who's to complain if communities are satisfied, regardless of whether crime has actually dropped? A feeling of safety is often as important as the reality of safety.

A 1989 study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, noted that the Guardian Angels give one clear benefit to the communities they come to: "The results revealed that 60 percent of the citizens who knew that the Guardian Angels patrolled in their area reported feeling safer ... ."

Yet the study found that the Guardian Angels have not been proved effective as a deterrent to serious crime. A summary noted: "While a drop in the number of violent crimes reported was observed from pre- to post-introduction of the Guardian Angels patrols in an experimental area, an even greater drop was found in the control area where no Guardian Angels patrols occurred."

That's not a damning assessment, as it's often difficult to pinpoint why crime rates go up or down; there are simply too many variables.

The study also suggested that property crimes are an area in which the Guardian Angels are likely to have the most impact, even though researchers could not find a cause-and-effect relationship: "Even though a significantly greater drop in the number of property crimes occurred in the experimental area [where the Guardian Angels patrolled] than in the control area, the presence of other factors prevented any firm conclusions being drawn about the extent to which this could be attributed to the Guardian Angels patrols."

Peoria's Scally said property crimes - such as break-ins - are crimes of opportunity, and that's where the visual presence of the Guardian Angels should make a difference. "I don't know if they've reduced or deterred crime," he said.

Sliwa didn't dispute the findings of the study, and then offered the chicken-soup line that even if you think the Guardian Angels do not make a community safer, they do not harm it, either.

"I don't know what it would hurt to have the Angels walking the streets," Meyer wrote in an e-mail. "It might make the residents feel safer and in the end actually be safer."

"There's no downside," Lynn said.

Sliwa compared the Guardian Angels to presidential candidates presently trying to woo Iowans. (He said he doesn't plan to run for public office but didn't rule it out: "I'm constantly being asked to. But at this point I've got plenty on my plate. The mission is taking us internationally.")

"I can't wine you, dine you, and then drop you like a bad habit," he said. "We have to deliver, because we can't just pick up and go. ... If we fail in Davenport, we're going to have a very unhappy camper by the name of Bill Lynn, who's going to say some really bad things about us. ... It's incumbent upon us to follow through."

A meeting for people interested in joining the Davenport chapter of the Guardian Angels will be held at 11 p.m. on Friday, March 23, at the Radisson Quad City Plaza hotel in Davenport. (The time is not a typo.) Training will begin on Saturday. To confirm meeting information, contact Jeremy Boots at (563) 210-1182.

For more information on the Guardian Angels, visit (


To listen to the Reader interview with Curtis Sliwa, visit (

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