A few curious homeowners flicked on their outside lights and peeked out as a dozen men and women wearing red berets walked briskly, two abreast, along Burton Avenue. It was after 10 p.m., and residents on this quiet street in San Gabriel, edgy because of the so-called Valley Intruder and news of a rape in the area the night before, were caught off guard by the unusual nighttime activity.
The patrol was one of several that have been conducted by prospective members of the fledgling San Gabriel Valley chapter of the Guardian Angels. And by the time they got to Burton Avenue, it had been a long evening.
They had gathered at 7:30 at Arcadia County Park for two hours of fitness and self-defense training, as well as preliminary instruction in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid. Most of the trainees were young men between the ages of 16 and 25, and five in the group were women, the oldest a 51-year-old mother from Monrovia.
The Monrovia woman, who asked not be be identified, said she got involved after attending a July 22 meeting in Sierra Madre called by members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Guardian Angels, a volunteer group that conducts unarmed patrols primarily in high-crime areas.
The group organized in 1979 to patrol subways in New York City, where muggings and purse-snatchings are common. It grew rapidly and now has 5,000 members in 59 chapters nationwide. It organized in Southern California in 1981, and now has chapters in South-Central Los Angeles, the Westside and Hollywood. Members generally patrol in heavily crime-ridden areas to guard against criminal assaults on innocent people or property.
The group serves chiefly as a visual deterrent, but if members witness serious crimes they try to make citizen's arrests and detain the suspects until police arrive, said Scott McKeown, coordinator of the group in Los Angeles county.
"We are not vigilantes," he said. "We don't carry weapons."
The Guardian Angels first came to the West San Gabriel Valley to patrol on July 11 at the request of two worried Arcadia residents who called asking for help. The group held the Sierra Madre meeting to introduce members to the community and to encourage local residents to set up a San Gabriel Valley chapter, McKeown said.
An orientation meeting was held July 26, and about 25 people are now in training. Most of the trainees, who come from South Pasadena, El Monte, Temple City, Arcadia, Monrovia, Sierra Madre and San Gabriel, appear to come from middle-class backgrounds, in comparison to what McKeown described as the widespread image of Guardian Angels as inner-city toughs.
The women, most in their late teens and early 20s, expressed concern over the crime wave and said they enjoyed the camaraderie of the group.
The Monrovia woman's motivation was somewhat different from that of the younger women trainees. "I asked them to talk to our Neighborhood Watch meeting, and then I decided to join the group," she said.
"On patrol I mostly have been talking to people and doing public relations," encouraging residents to accept the group's presence.
"And with the training I feel more in control and I feel I know how to handle myself."
Others Patrol in Cars
McKeown said that although the main focus of the Guardian Angels is foot patrol by younger people, in other areas of the country the group also has car patrol divisions manned by older people as an extension of Neighborhood Watch.
He said that after the San Gabriel Valley foot patrol division is established, he hopes to start car patrol.
But foot patrol is of primary interest to the younger trainees, who often become involved in the Guardian Angels through their friends. Among the current group of trainees are three 16-year-olds who attend Monrovia High School.
"I joined because I am interested in cleaning up the city," said Joe Russell, who was at his third training session. He persuaded his friend, Mike Knight, to enroll, and then another friend, Toby Zucco, joined them.
According to Danny Lewis, director of the Westside chapter of the Guardian Angels, who has been overseeing the training of recruits in the San Gabriel Valley, prospective Guardian Angels go through an open-ended series of training sessions held twice a week. The sessions involve strenuous workouts in physical fitness, self-defense techniques, citizen's-arrest procedures (including the use of handcuffs) and foot-patrol techniques.
They also learn the rules under which Guardian Angels operate nationwide. Training time varies, depending on fitness and maturity levels. Prospective members become Guardian Angels only after they have completed the training, sometimes in as little as four weeks.
No Criminal Records
Candidates for membership must be at least 16 years old and provide at least three personal references. They are interviewed and asked if they have criminal records. A minor juvenile offense might not preclude membership, but a felony record would. The group says the training program itself will screen out those who lack sufficient commitment or stamina. Trainees are subjected to verbal abuse as a test of temperament, hidden biases and willingness to obey commands.
Trainees may be dropped for poor attendance, failure to keep up with the group, refusal to follow orders or showing up under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in possession of weapons.
The fitness training is rigorous, involving running, push-ups and sit-ups, and most of the trainees did not finish the required 35 push-ups.
After the two-hour sessions, trainees are given a few minutes to catch their breath while the leaders decide where to patrol.
On this night, the trainees were split into two groups of about a dozen, with a leader and two regular Guardian Angels assigned to each.
One group traveled by van to a shopping center in Temple City. Before lining up in formation, they frisked each other, searching for weapons and drugs, which Guardian Angels are forbidden to carry. No knives or large flashlights are allowed.
After lining up two abreast, with trainees in the middle and Guardian Angels equipped with walkie-talkies front and rear, the group set out. When Lewis yelled, "Double time!" it was a signal to run; when he yelled "Clear!" the group came to a halt.
Trainees walk on sidewalks or at the side of the road and are warned to avoid potential attackers by being alert not only to the street beside and behind them, but also to roofs.
They traveled at a fast walk south on Rosemead Boulevard to Broadway, where they headed toward San Gabriel. After an uneventful night, they regrouped in the park at 11:30 p.m.
Training Speeded Up
After going through this routine for several weeks, McKeown said, "some of the trainees are close to being ready (for membership). We are stepping up the normal training process because of this crisis and some have done eight patrols.
"Generally chapters start from a situation like this--it is typical to get community response to a particular crisis and when the crisis is over we will lose some members. But a core will stay," McKeown added.
"The first goal is to have people patrol their own community," Lewis said. "Then we have regional events to sustain the interest and sometimes members patrol other areas (where there is more crime activity)."
Lewis believes that San Gabriel Valley residents have made a good start in forming their own Guardian Angels chapter, but training is only the beginning.
"Nobody has taken a major leadership role here yet," Lewis said. "Usually when we are setting up a new chapter we first get a training coordinator, then a patrol coordinator, then a chapter event coordinator, and then one person emerges as a leader."
"We hope to have this chapter on its own feet sometime next month but we still need a headquarters." McKeown said the group hopes someone will donate the use of a warehouse in a commercial area.
"I don't think a bunch of noisy Angels coming off patrol at 3 a.m. would be welcome in a residential neighborhood," he said.
Reaction Is Mixed
The Guardian Angels got a mixed reaction when they first came to patrol in middle-class San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods. Many residents of Arcadia, Sierra Madre and Monrovia, where the group has been patrolling nightly from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. since the middle of July, have welcomed their presence, feeling it serves as a deterrent to crime.
But some law enforcement officials have been lukewarm to the group, especially when the members first arrive in an area.
"We have had no problem of them interfering with us in any way but I feel they are not effective walking our streets at night. They do better patrolling buses or subways," said Capt. Neal Johnson, acting chief of the Arcadia Police Department.
But in Los Angeles, where the group has been operating for four years, Lt. Dan Cook, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, praised the group and its efforts.
"They have never caused us any problems and it was never their intention to be a vigilante group," he said. "We regard them as an extension of Neighborhood Watch and appreciate their work. We have no objection to them being here because we need their help."
Like local police, residents have mixed feelings about the group.
"My neighbors and I have seen them on the street and we like their presence," one Arcadia resident said.
"I wasn't even aware of them," said another. "I probably would have been frightened if I saw them because I would not have known who they were."
'Like Tough Street Kids'
A third attempted to sum up the feeling of the community.
"Some people view them negatively because Arcadia is a very conservative community and they look, talk and walk like big city kids. They look like tough street kids.
"People in Arcadia are not used to seeing strangers on the street. The kids mean well but their background makes people nervous," she added. "And nobody wants to admit we need them here. This is a totally new experience for us.
"People will be happier once they get to know them. And they will feel more comfortable if kids from the area get involved."