Taking back our streets

Unfortunately, Richmonders are familiar with news of shootings and drug busts in the Highland Park area… and a few have made up their minds to do something about it. On September 16th, the Richmond chapter of the nationally recognized Guardian Angels conducted their first patrol.

Unfortunately, Richmonders are familiar with news of shootings and drug busts in the Highland Park area… and a few have made up their minds to do something about it. The Highland Park Neighborhood Watch formed the Richmond chapter of the Guardian Angels to provide a more proactive approach to addressing crime in their neighborhood. The chapter was started in direct response to a shooting recently heard in Ann Hardy park. City Council representative Ellen Robertson, whose house is next to the park, asked the Neighborhood Watch to brainstorm ways to lower crime in the area. They decided to get together with the Richmond Police Department to form a Citizens on Patrol organization — or a C.O.P.

“I started thinking, ‘Let’s call the professional C.O.P.’s’” said Neighborhood Watch member Jo White, who is now commander of the Richmond Guardian Angels. White got the go-ahead to form the chapter from Curtis Sliwa, founder of the national organization. After three months of still ongoing training, they had their first patrol on September 16th.

Meadowbridge and Front Street

Just as it had gotten dark, the Angels stood in formation at their first post: the corner of Meadowbridge Road and Front Street. “There were a couple of drug busts, so we want to be sure that we patrol this area,” White said about the strategy in choosing their starting point.

About a dozen young men stood at a bus stop across the street, some sizing up the group, others singing and talking loudly. “We’ve run into them before doing drugs…mostly marijuana” White said.

The goal is to “push them out, but we don’t want to push them out into another neighborhood” she said. The Angels will start investigative training with the Richmond Police Department to learn how to jot down their observations as good evidence. However, White admitted that “you can’t assume that just because they are out here they are trying to be gangsters and taking drugs, but we are out here just in case.”

White gestured across the street to the locked iron gates of Gabriel Prosser Park. Concerned citizens asked the city to lock the park because it was used to sell drugs.

“We have a lot of elderly people around this area who are scared to leave their porches. It’s a nice day, they should be able to walk and go to the park,” she said.

The city gave the Angels the keys to the park, and it can be open for events as long as they are there to guard it. White sees this as one small step in a battle for a neighborhood.

“They won by pushing us out of that park…we can’t have that!”

Gaurdian Angel Jason Pheifer scanned his surroundings with a furrowed brow. “You get a heightened sense of awareness because not everyone is friendly towards you” he said uneasily. One of the men from across the street decided to stand next to the Angels. “It’s a territorial instinct. They’re just puffing their chest out,” Pheifer said about the new company. “As long as they aren’t doing anything illegal in front of us they have nothing to fear from us.”

Ann Hardy Park

“There they go!” was called out from across the street when the Angels left their first post for Ann Hardy Park via Enslow street. The park is another of what White calls “hotspots.” Enslow was dotted with dilapidated properties and signs reading “Drug Free Zone”– perhaps the most telling visuals of Highland Park’s drug problem. Sweeping trees and well maintained Fan-like houses seemed a rebellion in their own right.

The park was quiet which White attributed to it being a Thursday. All future patrols will be on Friday and Saturday nights. “We need to go where we’re needed when we’re needed, not just walk,” White said.

Looking at the large houses surrounding the square green it is hard to believe the park was the sight of a shooting a few weeks ago. “As a matter of fact Councilwoman Ellen Robertson lives in this beautiful house right there,” she said pointing. After hearing the shots, Robertson made the call that was the first step in forming the Richmond chapter of the Guardian Angels.

Back to home base

On the winding walk back to their Maryland Avenue office, the Angels paused on every corner to observe their surroundings. There were mixed reactions from residents: some were mocking, but the majority were overwhelmingly positive.

“That’s right, getting the neighborhood back! That’s what I’m talking about!” a woman yelled from her car.

The Angels plan to garner support by going door to door collecting contact information. The hope is that they can build more trust with residents who will inform them of problem areas and foster community involvement in other areas as well.

White views crime reduction as a matter of community involvement and not being afraid to report crimes. “We need the citizens to stand up and take control of their city. Maybe if they see others doing it, that will gave them a reason.” She commends greater police presence in the area while acknowledging that’s not all it takes. “The police can’t do it without the citizens. The citizens have to help as well.”

“We are 15 strong but we really need to be 1,500 strong,” she said about the currently small group.

The Angels have received requests to patrol in the Hull Street area and hope to expand throughout the city and to Petersburg.

Guardian Angels’ history and controversy

The Guardian Angels organization was formed by Curtis Sliwa in the 1970’s in response to New York City’s soaring crime rate. Since then, chapters have sprung up across the United States and the world. The organization has received commendations from both Presidents Reagan and Clinton and has since formed youth and other types of safety programs.

Mixed feelings have surrounded the group since its founding. Many crime ridden localities welcomed the group, especially smaller areas with no police force of their own. Meanwhile, others citizens and officials frowned upon what they saw as vigilantism and questioned the group’s policy of citizen’s arrests. A citizen’s arrest is defined as detaining someone until the police arrive.

The Richmond Chapter met with an advisory board on September 23rd to discuss if they could carry handcuffs for citizen’s arrests and other legal boundaries. The board consisted of citizens, police officers, and other officials. Although carrying cuffs is common in other chapters, Richmond’s will not because the board advised against it. However they have been advised that physical restraint without cuffs is allowed when they or others are in immediate danger.

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Leah Small

Leah served as our editorial intern during the Fall of 2009. She is a VCU student who thoroughly loves Richmond, its niche culture, and all there is to see and do.

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