LONG BEACH — Wearing red berets and armed with handcuffs and flashlights, the Guardian Angels plan to open an office here next week and recruit volunteers to patrol the city's high-crime areas.
"I've been told that gangs are overrunning certain areas of Long Beach," said Butch Harbaugh, 39, the Guardian Angels' Orange County regional coordinator, who will kick off street patrols Friday.
No Official Support
But the self-appointed crime-stoppers are not getting red carpet treatment from the Long Beach Police Department, whose official position is one of non-support. Other city officials, in the meantime, are taking a wait-and-see approach.
To Sandra Hess, 26, a spokesman for the group in Los Angeles, the reaction is typical. But Hess said that once police learn about the group, even if the department's official stance does not change, the officers will be grateful the volunteers are walking the streets after dark.
"People often call us vigilantes. We're not. We're vigilants," Hess said.
"We have received over the past few months a lot of phone calls out of Long Beach," Hess said. "And we've had so many calls from people who want to join. Because of the response, we felt, yeah, this is the time for us. We don't want to push into an area. We just wait until people want us."
Informal Poll Taken
And Long Beach residents want them, Harbaugh said. He pointed to an informal Guardian Angel poll of 338 residents in which 89% said they wanted the volunteers patroling the city, 4% said no and 7% said they were undecided. In the same poll, 79% of the residents said they thought the City Council and the police should support them, according to Harbaugh.
"What we're trying to do is be extra hands and eyes for the Police Department . . . we're not trying to do the police's job," Harbaugh said in explaining the group's philosophy.
The Guardian Angels will make a citizen's arrest upon witnessing a crime and then call the police. They do not carry weapons and they do not use violence unless they are attacked, Harbaugh emphasized repeatedly. They are identifiable by their clothing, which includes a red beret and a T-shirt with their logo--patrol streets.
The key to the Angels, Hess said, is visibility.
"Ninety percent of it is psychological deterrence," Hess said.
Mayor to Wait and See
Mayor Ernie Kell acknowledged that the presence of Guardian Angels gives people "a feeling of security." But Kell said he wanted to "wait and see" for feedback from both the Angels and police. Councilman Tom Clark agreed and said he had "some concerns about an organization that acts in a semi-official policing capacity."
Leaders from the Guardian Angels were to appear Tuesday before the City Council, but because of a misunderstanding regarding the meeting's starting time, the appearance was postponed until next week.
The Angels are not waiting, however, for an official welcome mat. Beginning this Friday, they plan to patrol Martin Luther King Jr. Park and the area of 8th Street and Hoffman Avenue--sites targeted as a result of complaints from residents, Harbaugh said. They plan to continue the patrols each Friday and Saturday in areas requested by residents, eventually expanding to other days of the week once their membership grows, he said.
Until Long Beach has its own volunteers, Angels from the Stanton-based Orange County chapter and Los Angeles chapters will do the job. By next week, the Angels plan to set up shop in their new Long Beach headquarters at a donated office at 555 Pacific Coast Highway.
Meeting at Mall
A handful from the area's approximate 225 members met at the Long Beach Mall last Friday, but did not patrol the area, Harbaugh said.
The six nearest Guardian Angel chapters are in Stanton, East L.A., West L.A., central L.A., the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Valley/Pasadena, Hess said.
The likelihood of Long Beach becoming the seventh city in the area with a Guardian Angels chapter drew a cool reception from police.
"We're not supportive of this type of activity on the part of citizens," Deputy Chief Gene Brizzolara said.
"They come in and do whatever they deem appropriate. They work sometimes inside the law and sometimes outside the law. What we have to do is ensure that they are not operating outside the law so it brings more work for police," Brizzolara said, adding that he would encourage those interested in such work to join the police reserves.
'There Are Enough Gangs'
Harbaugh said his members work within the law, not outside of it. "That's not what we're about. There are enough gangs on the street."
Members are trained, and anyone breaking the rules is kicked out, explained Harbaugh, who said he got involved in a Guardian Angels chapter in Baltimore after his mother was "beaten over a loaf of bread going to the store one day." A custodian for the Garden Grove Unified School District, Harbaugh is not the only one in his family involved in the Guardian Angels. So is his wife and his eldest of three sons.