December 10, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Angels among us 

Citizens’ groups take law enforcement into their own hands

It's a fine pre-Autumn night, and the stretch of Meigs Street between Park and Monroe Avenue is teeming with life. People are gathered on porches, getting an early start on the weekend's festivities. The murmur of distant conversation fills the air. As we walk toward Monroe Avenue, a 20-something woman standing on one of the porches calls out: "I really appreciate what you guys are doing." She makes a point of smiling at each of us as we pass.

            We're mere moments into the start of a Friday-night patrol with the recently re-formed local chapter of the Guardian Angels, and several people have already expressed their support. As their guest for the night, I'm surrounded by about 10 members wearing their trademark red berets and white T-shirts --- all bearing the Guardian Angel logo of a winged pyramid with an eye at its center.

            I'll spend the better part of the night on side streets crisscrossing Monroe Avenue between the Inner Loop and Oxford Street. As the group develops and grows, this neighborhood will serve as its area of focus. Formed in July, this is the third Rochester chapter in Guardian Angels history.

            To understand the implications of the Guardian Angels' presence in Rochester, you must start with the group's controversial founder, New York City's Curtis Sliwa. A nighttime subway commuter back in 1979, Sliwa became increasingly frustrated with the city's high crime rate. He decided to act after the city announced it could no longer afford to provide Transit Police on the trains from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. So he assembled 12 other people and began leading them on safety patrols through the subways at night.

            Initially, Sliwa faced opposition from then-Mayor Ed Koch, the New York Police Department, and the Transit Police. "At first, I felt like a hemorrhoid in a red beret," he says, "because everyone --- it didn't matter what their politics [were] --- was trying to wipe us out of existence. Ed Koch led the branding, gave us the scarlet letter of the big V, vigilante," he says before insisting: "We were not vigilantes. We were an unarmed, interracial patrol [exercising] the rights that citizens had [to make citizens' arrests]." But many New Yorkers --- including then-District Attorney Rudolf Giuliani --- became supporters, and Angels membership climbed steadily throughout the next decade.

            Nonetheless, the group continued to be shrouded in controversy. Perhaps the deepest blemishes on Sliwa's record are the false allegations he admits he made during the Angels' early days. He claimed he was unlawfully detained and abused by Transit Police. Sliwa's also a proud conservative. According to local chapter leader Russell Hackett, the Guardian Angels take no official stance on any political issues outside of law enforcement. But the "good guys vs. bad guys" mentality clearly filters down from New York City headquarters to the Rochester streets.

We stop at a red crossing signal on the corner of Meigs and Monroe. Each person in the group faces outward to watch for potential harm in every direction. It's like watching the automatic reflex of some exotic sea creature.

            "OK... step!" calls Hackett. The group resumes its double-file formation and we cross the street.

            "We have to make sure our backs are covered," Hackett says. The group repeats the same motion every time we stop.

            Like Sliwa, Hackett says "good guys" a lot. He comes across as neither intolerant nor rigid. In fact, he is hardly the classic authoritarian. His subordinates appear to genuinely enjoy deferring to him. And his patient, gentle manner seems to foster their ease in doing so.

            Hackett says some chapter leaders don't allow their members to smoke while on patrol. He thinks that's a bit harsh. "This isn't the army," he says, shaking his head. He also chuckles about the illegality of marijuana (though points out that he doesn't partake) and extols the value of moderation. He doesn't demonize drugs; he simply acknowledges their role in the erosion of urban neighborhoods.

            "There's hardly anything I won't tell you," he says as we discuss his values, concerns over raising his daughter, and lighter fare like his affinity for the local goth club Vertex.

            Hackett's push to reactivate the Rochester chapter stems from his belief that crime is on the rise. "I've been noticing a lot of the changes on Monroe Avenue [between Culver and downtown]... More crime, a lot more drugs." Though he was unable to provide statistics, Rochester Police Department spokesperson Sergeant Carlos Garcia downplayed safety as an issue in "the Monroe Corridor."

            "While we are extremely happy to hear that we're going to have citizens involved," Garcia says. "We also don't want to paint the picture that the Monroe Avenue neighborhood is unsafe, because it is not."

            But is alarm on the rise throughout Monroe, Park Avenue, and the East End? After all, it was only this past summer that Andrew Attinasi was shot and killed while walking home on East Main Street from Richmond's bar. While Garcia acknowledges the fact that the city's homicide rate is up dramatically from last year, he cautions against misinterpreting the numbers.

            "I can't remember the last homicide in the East End [before Attinasi's]," he says before stressing that most homicides in the city are motivated by drug-related rivalry.

            No stranger to urban blight, Hackett lived off of Joseph Avenue until his recent move to Henrietta. He was part of the last incarnation of the Rochester Angels, whose base of operations in 1996 was on Lyell Avenue and Saratoga Street, where, as he describes it, "every other house was a drug house."

            "We want to use [Monroe] as a template," says Hackett. "Obviously, there are other places in the city that need more attention, but we need to start with a place where we can make a difference, [where] people want our help."

            At this stage, the Angels tend to patrol only on weekend nights. "They know this is just the first step in many steps they hope to take so they can deal with some of the more severe problems the city has," Sliwa says. Though obviously a natural, Hackett is fairly new to leadership. His biggest challenge seems to be that he is working from the ground up with a fledgling organization.

            "They have been doing a good job in getting out to some of the neighborhood associations. I've heard some nice, positive comments," says Pete Saxe of the Highland NET office on South Clinton Avenue.

            Early on, Hackett also met with Lieutenant Frank Churnetski and Crime Prevention Officer Brian Bannerman of the RPD's Highland Section, as well as the Monroe Avenue Merchants Association.

            But, as Sliwa suggests, there are many issues to iron out. Martha Kelly, president of the Monroe Avenue Merchants Association, feels the Guardian Angels' choice to focus on Monroe Avenue casts the neighborhood in a bad light.

            "In their concern with the safety of the area, they were giving people the impression that it was an unusually unsafe city neighborhood, and that is not the case," she says.

            And following up with Saxe two months after our initial interview, he expressed concern that the Angels' presence had diminished, and that both the local and New York chapters were unresponsive in his attempts to communicate with them.

            Additionally, besides Hackett and secondary chapter leader Denise Eggert, many of the Angels are still in training. There are several legal issues to contend with if crime-scene protocol is not followed correctly. Not to mention, health insurance is not provided by the Guardian Angels organization (though legal representation is).

            All Angels who make it past the training stage are well-versed in New York State Penal Law, Hackett says. And old members re-train with every new crop of trainees. A retired Greece Police officer has provided training for the group in the past --- but Hackett hasn't been in contact with him lately.

            Both Hackett and Sliwa say the local chapter's relationship with police is good. And the rapport between the two groups appears favorable during our Friday-night patrol. But the police, at least officially, are taking a more neutral stance.

            Officer Bannerman, who also works out of the Highland NET office, describes the meeting between himself, Hackett, and Churnetski as "agreeable." Bannerman and Churnetski told Hackett that "we neither support [them] nor oppose [them]. We recommended that his patrols avoid physical confrontations with people, and that they carry cell phones and report criminal activity to 911 rather than involve themselves physically. We advised them that they will receive the same treatment as any other citizens on the street, that they will get no special consideration, neither good nor bad."

            So, what is the right of a citizen to make an arrest?

            "You have the right to detain someone who has committed a crime in your presence," says Highland Section Captain Fred Bell. "We don't recommend that people do that. We don't want people getting hurt. Now, obviously [the Guardian Angels] feel they are a little more sophisticated than the average citizen. Our position [still] is, we encourage people to observe and report."

Yusuf Sharif, Imam of the Islamic Da'Wah Community Center and leader of a similar group, the Da'Wah Patrol, shows me a letter from Police Chief Bob Duffy that hangs on the wall in his office. It thanks Sharif "for all your assistance that led to the arrest of the person who killed 13-year-old Latesha Parsons. You worked very hard throughout the community to gather information and encourage people to help the police during this investigation."

            Located on Central Avenue off of North Clinton (just a few doors down from the Urban League and a block away from the Amtrak Station), Da'Wah is also home to a functioning mosque. Roughly two to three times a week, Sharif's Da'Wah Patrol congregates here before setting out for impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods just north of downtown.

            On the street since 1996, the patrol members essentially do the same things the Guardian Angels do. In bright yellow jerseys with "DA'WAH PATROL" printed across their backs, they simply make themselves visible in order to deter criminal activity. Sharif's strategy is to select a neighborhood or street for "clean up," which entails not only direct confrontations with drug dealers, but also picking up garbage.

            In 1997, his group worked in tandem with the Guardian Angels. "When schoolgirls were getting attacked in the North Clinton/Hollenbeck [Street] area, we partnered up with the [them]," Sharif says. "I was glad that they were out there with us." One major distinction, though, between Sharif's group and Hackett's, is that some of the Da'Wah members carry concealed weapons while on patrol.

            "Of course [we carry weapons]," Sharif says. He adds that they are armed "legally --- the police are well aware."

            "But there's more than one way to skin a cat," he continues. "Our whole outreach is to get the residents involved in their own community, because they're scared. We let them know 'we're here. So you either accept it, or reject it.' We had some... rejections," he says with a booming laugh.

            "Either you're going to listen to our way," Sharif says of drug dealers, "or you're going to jail. If you sell drugs when we're here, we're going to make a citizen's arrest. We're not tolerating that when we're here."

            "We hold the police accountable, too," Sharif adds. "They don't always do what they're supposed to do."

            And how have the police responded?

            "They love us --- some of them," he laughs.

            A tall, strapping man with a reassuring presence, Sharif is an African American ex-Army drill sergeant who lives in the South Wedge. He speaks slowly, carefully measuring and weighing his thoughts. During criminal investigations of unsolved homicides, sexual assaults, and narcotics cases, Sharif's mission is to find the people responsible and deliver them to police. If he turns you in, he wants you to know it was him. Though he doesn't appear to be an aggressive man, he also does not seem afraid of reprisal from people he's helped send to prison.

            Da'Wah, in Arabic, means "to invite." In this context, the implication is "to invite to Islam." To illustrate, Sharif cites the Qu'ranic verse of origin: "Let there arise out of you a group of people inviting all that is good and forbidding all that is evil and unjust in society." He also says he is not out to convert anyone; that non-Muslims can live "Islamically."

            "We'll show you the place where they give out free needles," Sharif says. "We're very opposed to that. You wouldn't see a needle exchange on Park Avenue. Why on Clinton Avenue?"

            Located at 844 North Clinton Avenue, the Health Outreach Project is, in fact, the only needle exchange in Rochester. Steven Price, director of prevention for AIDS Rochester, which serves as the main office for the Health Outreach Project, responds to Sharif's concern by saying "the reason we're there is because that's where the prevalence of heroin use is. [We're there] to positively impact people who not only are using heroin, but their family members, spouses [etc.]. We know that we make a difference in the health of the community we serve."

            It's already dark outside as the patrol group gathers at the Da'Wah Community Center. Sharif leads everyone --- a fairly diverse group of roughly 10 people --- through a prayer, reminds them all that one of them is carrying a weapon, and cautions us to be careful before going over some basic communication procedures. "It's going to be pretty calm," he says before we set out for North Clinton.

            Even as the cold is setting in, the street is jumping with life. From Clinton Avenue, the spire of St. Michael's Church, ominously lit by moonlight, overlooks the neighborhood like a sorrowful, haunted relic. The people we pass seem caged, uneasy. But some of them greet the group, and are full of thanks.

            Sharif takes us to the backyard of an abandoned home. Needles litter the ground. In darkness illuminated only by Sharif's flashlight, the hanging despair of life here is inescapable. A few blocks away, he leads us into the basement of another abandoned home. There are signs that people have been squatting here.

            After an uneventful hour or so, the group stands idly on a corner outside a take-out restaurant on Clinton Avenue. A woman who looks to be in her late 40s calls out to Sharif.

            "I want to help," she says.

            Sharif tells her where she'll find the Da'Wah Community Center.

            "I think what y'all are doing is a good thing," she says. She goes on to tell us about the "sexual predator" who has climbed through her window on more than one occasion. Sharif asks if she's getting help. She assures us the police have been contacted.

            "What's your name, sister?" Sharif asks.

            She answers before asking, "Right down there on Central Ave., right?"

            "That's right, I want to see you down there."

            "I'll be down there."

            "Can I give you a hug?" Sharif asks.

            The woman's eyes light up. She hugs him tight and hangs on for a moment. He lets go and we start to move.

            "Let me get another hug," she calls out enthusiastically, laughing from the corner.

            "I'm married, sister," Sharif says, laughing back.

Participating in self-defense training with the Guardian Angels in a secluded park off Park Avenue, I'm being shown maneuvers by someone much bigger and stronger than I am. It becomes apparent to me that incapacitating someone is much simpler than most of us are led to believe.

            Denise Eggert, who is director of health and safety for the entire Guardian Angels organization, demonstrates basic techniques along with Hackett. An emergency-room nurse by trade, she spends much of her free time engaged in Angels-related activities. She travels frequently, often to teach martial arts to various chapters throughout the world.

            "By looking at her," Hackett says, "you wouldn't think she's [capable of defending herself], but" --- and he stresses this --- "I have absolutely no doubt of my safety when she's walking with me."

            Eggert is the survivor of a sexual assault. She actively participated in the prosecution of her attacker and still campaigns against his parole eligibility. Naturally, Hackett values her healthcare credentials and sees her as an example of the healing process that adds an empathic dimension to the work of the chapter. In her own words, she says she "works through healing to empower myself and other women."

            Both she and Hackett repeatedly emphasize that self-protection has very little to do with body size, strength, or even martial-arts expertise. Hackett prefers to teach --- and use, if necessary --- "non-glamorous" methods of self-defense. "No Bruce Lee stuff," he says, "[just enough to] get away."

            Hackett's notion neatly captures the greater mission of both these groups. Self-empowerment is the driving premise at the root of all their efforts. Both the Da'Wah Patrol and the Guardian Angels place a high level of responsibility on citizens to become involved in their own safety and the safety of others. Doing so, they feel, society may begin to broaden its definition of law enforcement.

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