The Guardian Angels: heroes or colour-coordinated thugs with a political agenda?
It's hard to tell, given events at the William Dennison seniors residence at Sherbourne and Dundas last Tuesday (July 11).
Like a bunch of pushy kids, the Angels, wearing their trademark red berets and bomber jackets, marched into the building flanked by supporters.
The Angels say they were invited to hold a graduation ceremony for new recruits by tenants fed up with crime in the area. The Toronto Community Housing Corporation, which operates the building, says the group was trespassing, since the Angels didn't have permission to hold their meeting.
Keiko Nakamura, TCHC's chief operating officer, sent the group a letter to that effect earlier in the day. "Unfortunately," he says, "it's being staged that we kicked them out."
Indeed. Enough television and newspaper outlets were tipped off to leave that impression in the news the next day.
After failed attempts to establish a foothold here in the 80s and 90s, it seems the Angels have been trying to insinuate their way into Toronto ever since the high-profile shooting of Jane Creba in front of a Footlocker on Boxing Day offered the perfect in.
The summer of gun violence that followed only made the modern-day vigilantes harder to ignore. There's been no end to the fundraising and, yes, publicity stunts in recent months, including beer-soaked comedy nights at the Brunswick.
Given the most recent spate of gun violence - eight shootings in the last two weeks alone - and the support of law-and-order mayoral wannabe Jane Pitfield (who's looking for any issue to ignite a moribund campaign) - it's looking less and less likely that the Angels will just disappear this time around.
That's a scary proposition for police Chief Bill Blair and Mayor David Miller, who have both refused to meet with the group, insisting on the need for police to do the policing. Every time someone gets shot, both have found themselves having to respond to questions about why the cops aren't doing more to curb the violence.
The specifics of community-based crime prevention efforts are often lost on a public (and media) more interested in quick fixes. If hiring more cops, as the city has already done (450 new officers, to be exact), is not the answer, then where does that leave the Angels?
Some residents of the William Dennison apartments hope they'll be nearby on the street or patrolling the lobby.
To hear one frightened resident tell it, seniors in the building have gotten little response from police about their concerns about crime in the neighbourhood. "We've had old ladies assaulted," he says.
The Angels claim more and more people are calling and e-mailing them, asking them to take on Toronto's problems.
Councillor and police services board vice-chair Pam McConnell, in whose ward William Dennison is located, suggests that the Angels "prey" on people's worst fears to boost their own fundraising efforts.
"It's very typical of them to come into confrontation with communities," McConnell says.
Angels supporters contend the criticism is all part of the city's attempt to keep a headlock on power.
"There are people who oppose that because perhaps it threatens their leadership abilities or their existence," says charismatic radio host Spider Jones, a regular at Angels events.
Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, a former McDonald's manager, started the group in the violent landscape of late-70s Brooklyn, first with a walk-home program and subway patrol. They met with mixed success in the beginning. Within a few years, two of their members had been killed in confrontations on the street.
Sliwa, who claims the group was vital in cleaning up New York's murderous streets, garnered an award from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
But Sliwa admits to winning media attention by cooking up fictitious criminal activities in the early years. He says some 76 arrests of the group's members over the years have been politically motivated.
Nowadays, the Angels style themselves as more of an educational posse south of the border, "devoted to personal safety, civic contribution, value development and cyber-security." Sliwa spends most of his time on the public speaking circuit.
On a February 19 trip to Toronto to speak to a Brunswick House packed with potential recruits, the firebrand Sliwa spoke to the fact that some don't want his group patrolling our streets.
"Rather than just be blamers, moaners and groaners and finger-pointers, like so many of our fellow citizens, we have decided to scrape the barnacles off our backsides, get off of the couch, stop eating the Lay's potato chips, vegetating in front of the boob tube, and get our rears in gear and do something about the problem [of crime]."
Riding the reaction to recent high-profile gun crimes, ex-cop Lou Hoffer emerged as head of the Angels' Canadian wing. He has teamed up with another ex-cop, Stephen Paquette.
It's been the job of Hoffer, to make some noise for the Angels here, only it hasn't always been the right kind.
The group's patrols in Parkdale, less a high-crime area than a haunt of the homeless and mentally ill, weren't well received by some, who said the Angels didn't understand the area's unique problems and accused them of taking too blunt and heavy-handed an approach.
"Parkdale was being used for them to grandstand, get some exposure in the media," says Craig Peskett of the Parkdale Residents Association. "Meanwhile, there was no need for them to be on the streets. We'd like to work with Toronto Police Services to bring some innovative change to the way our communities are policed," he adds.
Says Bart Poesiat of the Parkdale Tenants Association, "I know about incidents where these guys - and they're usually big, burly guys - pick on a psychiatric survivor who might be acting strangely because he or she is on legitimate psychotropic drugs."
Hoffer, meanwhile, continues his attempts to convince people his band of red patrolmen and patrolwomen are more like social workers.
"There are still misconceptions that we're some crimefighting quasi-policing organization," Hoffer said at a public forum at the Parliament Street Library on June 1. "We have to get the message out that 90 per cent of what we're doing is acting like a social agency. Of course, 10 per cent is left for acting as police lite.
"It's not protecting," Hoffer continued. "It's being proactive. I think we're going to act as a deterrent against crime. It's just another line of defence."
Judging by the attendance at that June 1 forum, however, the community isn't too interested. The press release indicated that Hoffer expected both Mayor Miller and Chief Blair to attend - both of whom were nowhere to be seen. In fact, if you subtracted media reps and Angels, only two people at the meeting actually wanted to take in the preaching.
Jacob Morning-Glory was one. "I saw one of their posters up in a bus station. I'm definitely joining."
"In this neighbourhood you only have to stand on one of the main streets for 15 minutes to know who's selling, who's using and everything that's wrong," said Olly Reilly, the other attendee.
The two never did become Guardian Angels. They were missing from last week's graduation. Nor was there a single black grad among the 16 who did receive their colours. A virtual para-military organization of white citizens patrolling Jane and Finch might not go over very well.
Many of the grads chose not to use their given names, instead going by American Gladiatoresque nicknames like Moondog, Towman, Spartacus, Red, TNT and J-Guy, highlighting a lack of transparency at a time when police will be required in the near future to wear name tags identifying them.
One grad, Holly Weisflock, an administrative assistant and one of a handful who offered up their full names, outlined the training the group underwent: about an hour and a half a week of self-defence training for three months; 16 hours of CPR; and six or seven hours going over the Criminal Code and other legalities.
Back at the William Dennison apartments, Peter Kent, the former journalist who ran for the Tories in the last federal election - and a main law-and-order proponent during last summer's gun violence - was on hand to show his support. "Public safety is not a matter of ideological turf warfare. Public safety is not a matter of cheap municipal power politics."
Pitfield, meanwhile, whose eye is on the mayor's office, met with Sliwa in New York and, not surprisingly, says the chilly reception the Angels have received from officialdom in Toronto has been deplorable.
Says Pitfield, who arranged the proper paperwork for the Angels' backup graduation spot in Allan Gardens: "In our city we need to be open-minded about anything that has worked to provide safety and security in other cities."
Hopefully, nobody will get hurt in the process.