Flashlights pierced the dim illumination of Sunday’s dusk over the still, cold creek. The sound of boots ruffling leaves could soon be heard, and if the many trees had eyes they could see a brigade of red berets marching two by two.
The six men and one woman underneath those berets are members of the Sacramento, Modesto and Stockton chapters of the Guardian Angels, a group of concerned citizens who patrol crime-ridden areas.
The creek is the Arcade Creek adjacent to the American River College campus, where several violent crimes have taken place over the past year, including multiple attempted sexual assaults, a strong-arm robbery and an armed robbery last November.
“Someone could be hiding in that bush,” said Manuel Rodriguez of the Modesto Guardian Angels as he shined his flashlight on to a bundle of brush. “That’s how they grab someone. The kids from the college walk here daily.”
The Guardian Angels were founded in 1979 in New York City by Curtis Sliwa. They are a group of citizen volunteers. They do not carry weapons while on patrol.
Originally patrolling the high-crime New York subways, they have become an international organization dedicated to providing a presence in places with a reputation for crime.
Martin Smith, leader of the Sacramento Guardian Angels, said that they were asked to come to the Arcade Creek trail after a series of crimes in the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood watch group here reached out to us,” said Smith. “There were a couple of child abductions in the houses.”
Kevin Mititi of the Stockton Guardian Angels said that the Sacramento chapter reached out for assistance.
“We were called in for assistance and they needed our help,” Matiti said. “We’re basically a big family. It makes you feel good to help people. It’s dangerous and people ask you why you put yourself on the line. But someone has to.”
Smith said that the red berets have the same authority as any citizen, and that their presence is primarily meant to foster community awareness rather than to punish.
“We have the same amount of authority as anyone,” said Smith. “We’re not like the police. We want to involve everyone in making the community safer.”
“We’re not trying to be adversaries, we’re trying to encourage them,” he said.
Smith did add, however, that in certain situations it may become necessary for an Angel to make a citizen’s arrest, the freedom every citizen has to arrest a person who is committing a crime in their presence.
The Guardian Angels are always looking for new volunteers and fundraisers.
Cody Sass, 18, was the youngest of the group. He lives in Stockton and became interested in the group because his neighbor is a member.
He pointed at the middle-aged Sean Rodgers, saying “I’m actually Sean’s neighbor. I asked him about it, came to a meeting, and got interested. I started when I turned 16, the minimum age.”
Members have to go through hours of self-defense training, and the organization itself provides self-defense training and anti-bullying initiatives.
“Awareness is the first step of self-defense,” said Smith.
Rodgers said that people using the trail should not use headphones or be distracted. He also recommended people use pepper spray.
“The good stuff that shoots 20 feet away,” Rodgers added. “Not mace, but pepper spray.”
Ultimately, the Angels reiterated that their goal is community involvement. They make it a point to introduce themselves to curious bystanders.
When Fair Oaks resident Dylan Patterson asked the angels who they were as they walked by, Martin Smith went to introduce himself.
“We like to introduce ourselves to others,” said Rodgers. “It’s a good opportunity to explain who we are, where we came from, and maybe he’d want to join.”
Patterson had mixed thoughts about the presence of the red berets.
“I’ve seen them on television, on the news,” he said. “What are they going to do if one of those thugs are over there? It’s good to see them though.”
Michael Joseph of the Modesto Guardian Angels said that the group wants the community to take some responsibility in increasing safety. He was disappointed that residents didn’t join them on their patrol when they first visited the trail last December.
“Last time the neighborhood all came out and when we started the patrol they went back in their homes,” said Joseph. “We want to get the neighborhood involved.”