MODESTO — The Modesto area has always had a serious problem with crime. So, why bring the Guardian Angels' unarmed citizen patrols to Stanislaus County now?
"It's never too late to start," said Michael Joseph, a Ceres resident who has patrolled the streets of Stockton with the Guardian Angels and wants to bring that same kind of vigilance to Modesto.
Joseph and other members of the Guardian Angels met with potential recruits Sunday, telling them what the national nonprofit organization is all about and how the recruits can help. They want to walk the streets in areas plagued by crime and vagrancy to help residents take back their neighborhoods.
The group's Stockton office is in an area where three murders had occurred on the same block, Joseph said. Once the Stockton chapter deployed its citizen patrols, residents started to use the neighborhood park again and feel more at ease about their surroundings.
"The same thing will happen here," Joseph said. "We're not police, but just us walking down the street helped changed things."
But they want to do more than just patrol.
Stockton chapter leader Sean Rodgers, who has been sent to start the Modesto group, said they want to provide information about homeless shelters or drug rehabilitation centers to those who need help. More importantly, they want to encourage residents who witness crimes to give information to police.
"We want to empower people to stand up, to observe and report," Rodgers said.
The national Guardian Angels organization, established in 1979, strives to provide peaceful solutions to safeguard neighborhoods, schools and the Internet from bullying, gangs and violence and to empower people through education and community involvement, according to its website.
The group of volunteers participates in weekly patrols, encourages participation in Neighborhood Watch, conducts martial-arts training, does graffiti abatement and sponsors outreach events such as free barbecues in a park.
About a dozen people interested in joining the Guardian Angels gathered Sunday at the Denny's restaurant at Five Points in downtown Modesto.
One of them was Riverbank resident Robert Gerisch, whose cousin was killed in May 2007 as he tried to stop someone from stealing his tow truck in south Modesto. He thinks the Guardian Angels can create an effective, visible deterrent to crime.
"I just figured I could provide some help," Gerisch said. "I want to go out and go on patrol."
Rodgers explained to Gerisch that the goal of the group is not using force to stop violence and other crimes. While all Guardian Angels are trained in self-defense, their mission is to be the eyes and ears for law enforcement and residents.
"We're not a vigilante group," Rodgers told Gerisch. "We don't want to get in harm's way."
The Guardian Angels have a chain of command and a set of rules that forbids members from carrying any weapons while on patrol. They take that a step further by frisking each other before patrols to ensure that no one has a weapon.
They notify police where they will be patrolling before heading out. If they do see a misdemeanor or felony crime being committed, they can make a citizen arrest.
Donna Lewis has lived in Modesto since 1969 and says crime has become more brazen in recent years. She's heard of the Guardian Angels and wants to join them on patrol.
"I've had some very close calls myself," Lewis said.
Three years ago, she said, she saw a suspicious group of young men "who looked like thugs" calling to her from the across the street, so she ran from them. In another incident, a man being chased by police banged on her car window to try to get in before he ran away.
Rodgers wants to get Lewis and others involved soon, likely with patrols in Modesto starting this weekend. But he first wants to know what the recruits are interested in, for instance, community service or patrolling.
And group members want to introduce themselves to business owners and residents to help disprove any misconceptions they might have about the Guardian Angels.
"We're not going to bully our way into the city," Rodgers said. "A good Guardian Angel doesn't have to use force."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.