Angels Watching the City

By Nancy Tannler

 Even though 44 percent of Americans own some kind of gun, violent crime rates have been on a steady decline since they peaked in 1991. It was a notable change because crime had quadrupled in the US since the end of World War II.

This change can be partly attributed to people like Curtis Sliwa, a NY resident who, in 1979, became frustrated by the lawlessness in the city and in particular the danger of riding the subways. He decided to take action and launched the “Magnificent 13,” an all-volunteer safety patrol that started by riding New York City’s No. 4 train, popularly known as the “Muggers Express.”

The popularity of the 13 grew quickly, along with the group’s ambitions and name. You can recognize them now as the “Guardian Angels.” Chapters began springing up all over the country and they came to Portland in 1982.

The Angels were at their peak of activity then. Most notable was their vigilance in watching the movements of the controversial Rajneeshees. After they left, patrols waned in Portland but the chapter restarted after the attack on the MAX train in 2017.

In September, the Guardian Angels gave a presentation to the Lents Neighborhood Livability Association (LNLA). They have become more visible in this community partly due to the amount of campers and homeless in the area. The patrolling Angels stand out with their red berets, jackets and t-shirts with their winged insignia on them.

Lisa Campos, Kristin Bloom and Penny Martine patrolling at a March Against Domestic Violence. Photo by Lisa Campos.

Lisa Campos and Penny Martine are dedicated volunteers with the group. Campos has been involved for 17 years. She explained to the LNLA what the Guardian Angels do when they are on patrol, what type of training is required to become certified, who is qualified to volunteer and how to contact them. Campos made it clear that there is a distinction between organized patrols like theirs and vigilantes. They carry no weapons of any kind, just their phones, water and first aid supplies.

“What Portland needs is more people on the streets who know what to do when they see criminal behavior,” Campos said. “Everyone can make a citizens arrest.” You ask the person their name, tell them they are under arrest and that they have the right to remain silent. Do not touch them and immediately call the police. “It’s good to know the direct number of your neighborhoods police officers.” 

The East and Central Precincts divide coverage of SE Portland. The East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team (NRT) covers Cesar Chavez Blvd. and east; the Central Precinct covers the area west of Cesar Chavez Blvd. To find out who your East Precinct NRT officer is call 503.823.4800. Call 503.823.0097 for the Central Precinct. 

Most people would probably not feel confident enough to do this without some back up or training and that’s where groups like the Guardian Angels come in. “We are trained in first aid, CPR, self-defense and, most importantly, how to talk with people who are on the edge.”

The Guardian Angels are active on the eastside of Portland, patrolling areas gangs tend to congregate in and homeless encampments. Their main routes are Old Town, Downtown, Lents, Park Rose, NE Portland and the MAX routes. They will go where people request their presence.

 “What we learn is to engage with street people, talk their language, ask them how they are doing, offer them water if it’s hot. If they are camping illegally or amidst trash we explain what they are doing wrong and how to correct their encampment before the authorities make them.”

The Angels always approach a volatile situation cautiously beginning by negotiating with the person in crisis, trying to talk them down but they are trained to intervene physically if necessary. “We make it clear to all potential volunteers that this patrol is not without its risks.”

The Guardian Angels is looking for more volunteers. “Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty set up the Portland Emergency Response Team and there are a few patrols set up by  private businesses, but that is not enough eyes on the street for a city the size of Portland,” Campos said.

Regular MAX passengers have told the Guardian Angels that just their presence on the train makes them feel safer. Anyone looking for an opportunity to commit a crime is deterred by their obvious appearance.

The Guardian Angels think in terms of prevention rather than protection. Their goal is to improve the quality of life by making members of the community feel safe. “Street crime is an ever-changing problem and we address each situation with the intent of cooperation,” Campos said.

If you are interested volunteering with the Guardian Angels, the first step is a walk with the Angels patrol to see if this is something for you. They will teach their “street smart” skills  to seniors, women, community groups, schools and university students. “We want people to know this is something everyone can do,” Campos said.

Contact Lisa Campos, 503.913.8689 or guardianangelsportland@gmail.com to get started.

Top photo: Penny Martine and a volunteer cleaning up in the Lents neighborhood. Photo by Lisa Campos.

Angels Watching the City

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