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Published: Sunday, 5/24/2009

Guardian Angels step up patrols in city of Toledo

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Shortly after sundown on a recent Friday evening, 18 figures in white T-shirts, dark pants, and red berets emerged from parked cars on North Toledo's Lagrange Street and gathered in front of two boarded-up houses.

"Welcome to Toledo," spoke their brawny leader, Aaron Brilbeck, regional director for the Guardian Angels. Twelve of the 18 Angels on patrol were visiting from newly founded Detroit and Cleveland chapters.

Following orders that they split into two parallel groups, one took the east-side sidewalk, the other the west. Residents on both sides of the street rose out of their porch chairs to see just who or what had landed.

Heads up, shoulders straight, arms swinging at their sides, the Angels began quietly walking two abreast through the neighborhood. They would turn heads nearly every step of the way on this evening's first hour-long patrol.

Toledo's chapter of the Guardian Angels, the New York-born volunteer citizen anti-crime organization, is now 2 1/2 years old. It's among the 138 chapters worldwide claimed by the Angels organization, which was started in 1979 in the South Bronx by the night manager of a McDonald's named Curtis Sliwa.

Both Detroit and Cleveland, like Toledo, have had sporadic histories with the Angels dating to the 1980s. The first Toledo chapter, formed in 1984, started off patrolling downtown, parts of South Toledo, and around the Old West End. The group briefly had a Bowling Green presence. Yet after two or three years, the chapter faded away, current members say.

Since its resurrection in December, 2006, the chapter has grown to about 20 members, and interest seems to be building since the city's May 1 layoff of 75 police officers. This month, the Angels stepped up patrols in both the Lagrange area and around its headquarters in the south end, a former fire station at 1841 Broadway, heading out four to five nights a week.

"Right now, I would liken it to a 2-year-old with Dad gone for the weekend," Mr. Brilbeck, 41, said of the postlayoff crime situation. "The 2-year-old is kind of testing the waters to see what he can get away with with just Mom. I think it's the very same here. I think that the bad guys have become a little bit bolder in their tactics."

The Angels patrol unarmed but are trained in martial arts and conflict resolution. Mr. Brilbeck said their first response to a situation is to call police. The group leaders also carry radios to communicate while they walk.

Although Mr. Brilbeck and a few others carry handcuffs for detaining perpetrators, the chapter refrains from making citizen arrests.

"As soon as I say, 'You're under arrest,' that's opening a huge Pandora's box," Mr. Brilbeck said. "I would prefer detaining you until the police get here."

It's now common for passers-by to shout encouragement to patrolling Angels or toot car horns in support. But not everyone is familiar with seeing a thin line of red berets on their streets.

"I'm glad you guys are around," shouted one woman from her front porch as a group strolled by in single file. "I've never seen you out here before."

During other moments of this particular evening's patrol, the Angels found themselves on a bit of a meet-and-greet. Time and again, as they passed a porch or a street-lit corner, they heard variations of the same question: Who are you?

"You all police officers?" "You guys the block watch?" "Hey, what you all called again?"

"There is some confusion," said Mr. Brilbeck, a former WNWO-TV, Channel 24, newscaster and now a morning anchor for WSPD-AM, 1370. "But then a lot of people who recognize us honk their horns and are happy to see us."

The red sateen jackets worn by Angels on chillier nights invite even more questions. Mr. Brilbeck said they've sometimes been mistaken for members of the Bloods street gang. Some people hear "Guardian Angels" and think "Hells Angels," the motorcycle group.

And particularly in the city's north end, where memories persist of the October, 2005, riot over a planned neo-Nazi march, some residents initially confuse the Angels with Nazis.

That happened on this patrol night when Devin Padua saw them walking along both sides of Lagrange Street in his neighborhood. Never having encountered the Angels, the impulsive 22-year-old started trailing them asking lots of questions: "Guardian Angels? Is that the fire department? Is that a bike patrol?"

Soon they arrived at the intersection of Lagrange and Dexter streets. The Angels stopped walking and stood motionless and silent with arms folded. Mr. Padua circled nearby during a loud and melodramatic cell-phone conversation with a buddy.

"I thought they was Nazis too at first! I seen the red and the white. I sees them and I ask and they're like, 'No, we're not Nazis,'•" Mr. Padua yelled into the phone. "I don't know what they are or who they are."

Toledo chapter leader Terry Wertz couldn't let that go. Signaling the young man over, Mr. Wertz explained that they were there to keep his neighborhood safe. He handed him an Angels business card, and before parting ways, the two men shared a hug.

Next the Angels headed east along Dexter as they gradually looped back to their cars. They encountered darker and uneven stretches of sidewalk on this part of the journey, passed several groups of youths, and elicited considerable barking from neighborhood dogs.

They saw two young men scatter from the intersection of Page and Elm streets. Mr. Brilbeck quietly announced that the group probably scuttled their first crime of the evening: a drug deal.

"See the two guys who were standing there no longer standing there? That's what I mean by a visual deterrent to crime," he said.

Mr. Brilbeck arrived in Toledo three years ago from Albany, N.Y. He has been active with the Angels since the mid-1980s, when as a teenager he patrolled the New York City subway system in groups of 50 with Mr. Sliwa, with whom he still speaks weekly by phone.

During the car ride back to headquarters, Mr. Brilbeck explained that a quiet night on patrol is a successful night. For their own safety, the Guardian Angels never go out in groups smaller than four, although their numbers usually are closer to eight or 10.

"The goal is simple: It's to reduce crimes, to improve the quality of life, to make a better city," Mr. Brilbeck said.

"The goal is not to go out there and fight - that is the last resort," he continued. "We've had plenty of people that we've decided they wouldn't be appropriate for Guardian Angels. Some people just want to go out and crack heads."

Kim Elkins, 19, a south-end resident who graduated last month from Angels training, said she joined the chapter to clean up her community.

"You see crack houses, whore houses right down the street - the building right next to you - and you kind of get frustrated because nobody seems to be doing anything about it," she said. "I just thought I would take matters into my own hands and do something about my neighborhood."

During the 1980s, the Guardian Angels often faced resistance from cities and police forces when opening chapters outside New York. Mr. Sliwa, their bold and outspoken founder, famously drew the ire of Detroit's then-mayor, Coleman Young, who denounced the Angels as vigilantes when they attempted to patrol his city.

Toledo's current Angels say they've gotten along with police so far.

"Rank-and-file officers, by and large, are hugely supportive," Mr. Brilbeck said. "When they drive past us, they honk and we wave. They know we're not here to take their jobs."

Deputy Police Chief Don Kenney said he is not aware of any recent complaints or incidents involving the Angels.

He said he has no problem with them being here, "as long as they don't try to take the law into their own hands."

On the recent evening, the Angels set out at midnight for their second patrol, this time through the south-side neighborhoods around their headquarters. Twenty minutes into it, they were approached near the intersection of Newbury and Lorain street by a worried homeowner.

"We're glad you're here, man. We've been having some trouble in this neighborhood," said Mike Foley, 49. "We had a whole skirmish out here about a week ago. There were shots fired and everything else."

Although he wasn't sure what caused the incident that jolted him and his neighbors, he suspects a drug deal gone bad. Mr. Foley also told the Angels about lingering confusion in the neighborhood about just who those people are walking around in red berets. "They think you're a motorcycle group."

As he talked, a car pulled up to a nearby house where young people were hanging around outside.

Someone approached the car. The person appeared to exchange words with an occupant, and maybe something else. A few minutes later, the car drove away and the person walked back into the house.

Mr. Brilbeck had to interrupt Mr. Foley's story.

"These guys are brazen!" Mr. Brilbeck said. "They just did a drug deal right in front of us here."

The Angels stuck around the corner a little longer before heading back to headquarters. Mr. Foley accepted one of the Angels' business cards. He said he would call the next time he sees trouble.

"What's important is that people like you give us some support and some emotional backing," he said. "Really, you couldn't have come at a better time."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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