An overflow crowd of about 300 West San Gabriel Valley residents, frightened by a recent series of five murders and four assaults in their communities, turned out this week to welcome the Los Angeles-based Guardian Angels, who have been patrolling the streets of Sierra Madre, Arcadia and Monrovia for two weeks.
The Guardian Angels sponsored the meeting Monday night at Sierra Villa Park in Sierra Madre to introduce themselves to the community and to encourage formation of a chapter in the area.
The meeting had to be moved from inside a community building to the park to accommodate the crowd, which ranged from senior citizens to young mothers with babies in arms.
The Guardian Angels have been patrolling the three San Gabriel Valley cities from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., said Scott McKeown, coordinator of the group in Los Angeles County. He said 16 to 25 members have been patrolling the area by foot and car.
"This is the first time we have had a continual presence in the San Gabriel Valley," McKeown said. "We came here because we received calls from frightened residents asking us to help. And the response has been so positive that we stayed.
"Initially police officers were skeptical and we didn't want to alarm residents, but the reaction among citizens has been overwhelming. They are scared. We have been warmly received and I think we have dispelled some fears."
The Guardian Angels, who wear red berets and T-shirts identifying themselves, organized as a volunteer group in 1979 to patrol subways in New York City. Members of the 59 chapters nationwide generally patrol in crime-ridden areas.
The Guardian Angels organized in the Southland in 1981 and there are now chapters in South-Central Los Angeles, the Westside and Hollywood. Members have also done limited patrolling in other areas confronted by serious crime problems.
Lt. Dan Cook, spokesman for the the Los Angeles Police Department, said the Guardian Angels have never been controversial in Los Angeles.
"They had bad publicity in New York," he said, "so when they arrived here we met with them because the idea was new here. They have never caused us any problems and it was never their intention to be a vigilante group.
"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."
Because the group is known for its work in high-crime urban areas, McKeown said, the Guardian Angels needed to make themselves known to middle-class suburbanites who think of Guardian Angels as young inner-city toughs.
'Answer Your Questions'
"We want to answer your questions about the Angels, because you may feel uncomfortable about us," he told the receptive crowd.
McKeown, an articulate, clean-cut-looking man, introduced himself as a 29-year-old vice president of marketing and sales for an electronics company.
"We volunteer our time," he said, "and we all either work or go to school."
He said the Guardian Angels is a nonprofit organization of trained volunteers that conducts unarmed patrols in high-crime areas.
The group serves chiefly as a visual deterrent, he said, but if members witness a serious crime they will make a citizen's arrest and detain the suspect until police arrive.
"We are not vigilantes," he said. "We don't carry weapons."
McKeown said he is interested in helping to start a chapter in the San Gabriel Valley. And at the end of the meeting, at which the group received a standing ovation, other Guardian Angels were swamped by residents offering their time, services and money in helping to set up a new chapter.
"We are participatory citizenship," McKeown said. "We no longer can leave the burden of safety to law enforcement authorities.
"It's time citizens take responsibility for themselves because the police can't handle the whole crime situation."
Although McKeown said his group has been well received by the police, only one police chief in the area, Bill Tubbs of Monrovia, was willing to comment on its presence in the area.
Conduct Must Be Lawful
"We have no objection or ill feeling toward them as long as they conduct themselves in a lawful manner," he said. "I do feel they possibly have raised the level of fear in the community beyond what it might ordinarily be, but I have to assume their motivation is valid--that they are trying to do a service to the community."
Sierra Madre Police Chief Bill Betts said, "No comment," when asked about the presence of Guardian Angels in his city. And Neal Johnson, acting chief of the Arcadia Police Department, said, "Since I've had no contact with these people I have no comment."
McKeown said that although the main focus of the Guardian Angels program is foot patrol by younger people, the group has other divisions, including one that works with senior citizens. Another division handles car patrols by older members.