A seed of change, sown in February 2007 in the form of a phone call made by a Salt Lake City man concerned about crime in his community, bore its first fruit Saturday as the new Salt Lake chapter of the Guardian Angels performed its first patrol of downtown's Pioneer Park.
Joshua Tso moved to Salt Lake in 2001 a newcomer who stayed to call the city his own. A place where he met his wife and purchased a home. A city that he watched grow tremendously and a place that started showing some of the less positive aspects of growth namely, a lot more crime.
"Seeing what was going on ... seeing and reading about crime in the city, I realized that something had to be done," Tso said. "I'm from the West Coast and knew about the Guardian Angels, and I made the call."
Tso's phone call to the New York City headquarters of the group got an immediate response. The organization sent a representative to the city, and Tso showed him around. That visit, and further evaluation of the area's crime rates, resulted in a thumbs-up from the group's leader, Curtis Sliwa, to start a Salt Lake chapter.
The all-volunteer, unarmed crime-patrol group was started in 1979 by Sliwa. At the time, he was a manager of a New York McDonald's restaurant and was fed up with the high incidence of crime on the city's subway system. It has since grown into an international organization with more than 5,000 members and chapters in more than 90 cities.
Tso ran into some challenges in finding people interested in getting involved but made enough contacts to build a core group to begin the training program required of all Angels volunteers. The rigorous preparation includes learning CPR, first aid, martial arts skills, law, conflict resolution and communication techniques. Not all of the original recruits made it through the process, but the 14 who did celebrated their graduation on Saturday at Jim's Family Restaurant in Millcreek. The Salt Lake group also has its offices in the back of the same building. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon spoke at the event, offering praise for the community activism.
"Not everybody can do what the Guardian Angels do," Corroon said. "But we can all be good neighbors ... keep an eye on our neighborhoods ... and be good people involved in our communities."
Sliwa, who was unable to attend Saturday's event due to health reasons, did address the group in a video presentation. In it, he noted that Pioneer Park patrols would be the first step in a growing effort in Salt Lake.
"Our mission today is Pioneer Park," Sliwa said. "Show improvements in Pioneer Park, then extend your wings to other communities in Salt Lake City that are under siege like they've never seen before.
Frank "Gunny" Lee is the Guardian Angels' director of chapter and operational development. He attended the graduation as a representative of Sliwa and works from Cincinnati. Lee said the presence of a new chapter in a city is not a vote of no confidence for local police.
"A Guardian Angel chapter developing in a city is in no way an indictment of that community's law enforcement," Lee said. "A police officer can't be five places at once. We want to develop a working relationship with law enforcement, citizens and with local government."
Lee said those connections have already been made in Salt Lake City and that the new patrol group would be in close contact with police. Lee also said that his group had spoken with the mayor of Ogden and that it could be the next Utah city to host an Angels chapter.
As for Pioneer Park, Mickelle Weber lives across the street and heads the area's neighborhood watch. She said that she and her neighbors she's spoken with see the new patrols as a very positive step.
"People don't go in the park right now ... they're afraid," Weber said. "The patrols bring eyes and ears ... being active and people actually taking ownership of the park is key."
Weber said that as a part of the efforts to occupy the park, an ongoing Sunday event hosted by her group called "Bocce and Barbecue" is intended to bring people together and make positive use of the space.
Tso said the Salt Lake Guardian Angels' first patrol of the park, conducted from 5-7 p.m. Saturday with an 11-person group, was very successful. Two people were found with drugs and/or paraphernalia, which the patrol confiscated, and one person, upset about the group's presence, was arrested by Salt Lake police after he attempted to assault a patrol member. Tso said the group photographed the people from whom drugs were confiscated and will call for an arrest if members come across them again with drugs.
"We're not cops," Tso said. "We're just citizens ... out there trying to keep everybody safe."Tso said the group is working on a regular schedule for patrols at the park but expected it will focus on Friday and Saturday nights for the time being. Further information on the Guardian Angels can be found at the group's Web site: www.guardianangels.org.