OWN invites Guardian Angels
Red Rock merchants, police dispute need for anti-crime volunteer group

       Although merchants and police have their doubts, the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) board voted Jan. 13 to send a letter formally inviting the Guardian Angels organization to patrol the area.
       The vote followed a meeting presentation by Peter Dempsey, who heads up the Colorado Springs chapter of the international volunteer anti-crime group that is known for its colorful red berets, white T-shirts, red jackets and lack of weapons. He told the board that Angels on patrol provide a “visual deterrent” to crime and make citizens' arrests when necessary.
       The Angels' initial Westside target is the Red Rock Shopping Center, southwest of 31st Street and Colorado Avenue. How- ever, merchants in the center were not specifically invited to the OWN meeting, nor had they been aware beforehand of the Guardian Angels' plan to patrol there.
       The Angels started 26 years ago as a citizen effort to clean up New York City neighborhoods and subways. An early fracas resulted in the group saving a 96-year-old woman from muggers. As Angel founder Curtis Sliwa was pulling her to her feet, she told him, “You're my guardian angel,” Dempsey recounted. Thus, the name was born.
       He said 28 Angels chapters have since formed elsewhere - including Denver and even Japan. The Colorado Springs chapter started about a year ago, chiefly working East Platte Avenue and the downtown area.
       County Commissioner Sallie Clark, a former OWN board member who first talked to the Angels about a Westside presence last year, said she did so in response to complaints about unsavory characters and crime problems at Red Rock Center. Clark said police, being “short-staffed,” ought to welcome the assistance.
       James Barrentine, crime prevention officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department's Gold Hill Division, did not agree with Clark's assessment. He said crime has not increased on the Westside, nor are police eager to work with a watchdog group without knowing how its members have been trained or what their individual backgrounds are. He added that the Guardian Angels have not talked to police about patrolling on the Westside.
       As for Red Rock Center, “it looks like a clean area, and people take care of it,” Barrentine said. “There are people that panhandle and live in the creek, which bothers some people, but we don't see it as a huge problem.” In fact, he added, there were “only about six calls for service last year” related to transient problems at the center. He encouraged people to call police if they see any suspicious activity in the future.
       With the OWN invitation, the Guardian Angels plan to start talking to Red Rock merchants. “When we establish ourselves in an area, we let the police, the merchants and the neighborhood know,” he said. “We don't just walk into the area; we're invited first.”
       Experimental daytime patrols of Red Rock took place last October, he said. At the OWN meeting, he said his group observed individuals who “come up from the creek in the daytime and panhandle people to buy alcohol.”
       His group's plan is to use their presence to shoo the panhandlers away and look for other problems. This began being implemented on a Red Rock patrol Jan. 18, during which Dempsey said his contingent caused panhandlers to “vacate their positions” in front of Safeway and Blockbuster.
       Patti Mulkey, manager of the Bookman bookstore in Red Rock, was one of three Red Rock merchants contacted by the Westside Pioneer - all of whom questioned the need for the Guardian Angels. “I hate the perception that we're in an armed camp in a dangerous neighborhood,” she said. “When we have a problem, the police come. It's usually inebriation, not panhandling. This is an extreme response to a very minimal problem.”
       Robert Maez, owner of the UPS franchise, had not heard of either OWN or the Guardian Angels. “It would have to be demonstrated that the problem justifies the involvement of this group (the Angels),” he said. He added the thought that if the group patrols at the center, in uniform, “It might have a negative impact” on business.
       Similar concerns were expressed by the manager of one of the center's larger corporate-owned stores, who said he had to remain off the record because of company rules.
       Mulkey additionally said she has spoken to managers of other businesses in the center - large and small - who believe as she does. “All of us have very good working relationships,” she said, adding the point that there are no bars on store windows, as might be expected in a high-crime area.
       When told of this merchant reaction, an OWN member, who asked not to be quoted, said such comments might be expected from shopkeepers who are worried about the image of their center.
       OWN is a volunteer organization that seeks to represent the interests of Westsiders on such issues as health, safety, traffic and new construction.
       OWN board member Bob Kliewer raised the issue of business acceptance for the Guardian Angels at the Jan. 13 OWN meeting, but it was not taken up by others. “I think the Red Rock thing ought to be decided by the merchants,” he said afterward.
       A draft of the OWN letter of invitation to the Angels will be submitted for final review at the OWN board meeting Thursday, Jan. 27, according to OWN President Joyce Gibson. Based on the vote at the Jan. 13 meeting, the letter would allow the group to patrol anywhere in the OWN area of the Westside (south of King and Uintah streets), not just Red Rock.
       Gibson said she thinks that's OK. “I'm familiar with them in Denver,” she said. “If there isn't a problem, they aren't going to be there.”
       On Platte Avenue, between Circle Drive and Union Boulevard, the Angels' patrols have made them popular with the Platte Avenue Business & Neighborhood Association, whose president, Stephanie Johnson, refers to them as “heroes and role models” in a testimonial letter. Clark cited such successes in recommending the Angels for the Westside; at the same time, she noted that local merchants need to take some self-responsibility - like not leaving cooked food in the trash for dumpster divers, as KFC used to do.
       At the OWN meeting, Dempsey described himself as a former Marine. “I served 16 years for my country, and I love it very much,” he said.
       The Colorado Springs chapter currently has 12 members, who needed to go through standard Guardian Angel training in martial arts and crime deterrence. Saying he hopes to gather recruits and increase that number to 50 by next September, Dempsey encouraged people with questions to call him at 473-7900.

Westside Pioneer article