Neighborhood watch is not a new phenomenon in the District — many neighborhoods have them. The Guardian Angels, however, have been empowering District residents for three decades.
“We decided that after hearing all the communities talk about crime, we felt it was time to train residents and walk with them,” said John Ayala, the mid-Atlantic director of the Guardian Angels.
The Guardian Angels are an international, non-profit organization of volunteers who provide public safety and education in neighborhoods, schools and cyberspace.
Across the District, Ayala said the organization makes residents feel safer and gives them the push they need to patrol the streets in their areas.
Currently, there are four neighborhoods that have Guardian Angels Neighborhood Watch patrol — Capitol Hill East, Columbia Heights, Trinidad and Longfellow-Kennedy Street Northwest. There is the possibility for expansion.
“We will set up Guardian Angels Neighborhood Watch in any community that would like the program,” Ayala said. Interested persons must have five or more people that are willing to walk for an minimum of one hour a week.
Most citizens are recruited to participate in the neighborhood watch at community meetings, through flyers or e-mails, or by word of mouth.
Ayala said the make-up of a neighborhood determines the level of feedback the organization gets.
“It is harder to get people to walk if their community has a lot of shootings and drug dealings,” he said. “A community that has muggings are more likely to come out.”
Jack Colhoun, a resident of Capitol Hill East, said his community “has been the scene of violent crime” for most of the 31 years he has lived there. “For the last 20 years I have been an anti-crime activist in my neighborhood,” he continued.
So when Colhoun found out the Guardian Angels were patrolling his neighborhood this fall, he was enthusiastic about joining them.
“I joined them to quell an up tick of violent assaults on pedestrians around the Potomac Metro station,” he said.
Particularly concerning to Colhoun was the wave of youth assaults on pedestrians and a “particularly brutal stabbing and attempted rape of a young woman” in the 500 block of 14th St., Southeast.
In the interest of enhanced safety, citizens are accompanied by Guardian Angel volunteers when patrolling their neighborhoods.
“I don’t worry about my safety when walking with John and the other Guardian Angels because they know how to conduct themselves on urban streets,” Colhoun said.
He explained that the volunteers know how to reach out to friendly and unfriendly people alike and “project an air” that they can handle themselves physically even though “they are not about getting into physical confrontations.”
“They are not antagonistic to people hanging out on the corners,” Colhoun said. “They are trained to defuse potentially bad situations.”
Kathy Henderson, a resident of the Trinidad neighborhood, said she is not afraid to walk with the Guardian Angels.
“I feel empowered,” Henderson said. “When a group of neighbors walk down a drug-infested street chanting: ‘What do we want? Safe streets! When do want them? Now!’ you can see criminals running in every direction.”
According to Henderson, criminals do not like attention nor do they like being observed when they are committing crimes. She said “clearing a street of drug dealers” within a few minutes is “very gratifying and serves as a powerful motivation tool to keep going.”
Furthermore, Colhoun said the Guardian Angels have a good relationship with the police and carry police radios in case there’s any trouble during the walks.
Metropolitan Police District (MPD) Assistant Chief Groomes said, “There was a law passed in [the] early 90’s that safeguarded and offered enhanced penalties on any defendant that threatened or assaulted an orange hat member.”
Orange hat members are citizens who walk a neighborhood, providing a visible presence for concerned residents in the area.
The MPD participates in Guardian Angels’ initiatives and neighborhood watch is no exception.
“The reason it works is that officers walk with the groups to show partnership and that we are serious about fighting crime,” Groomes said. “We find that neighborhoods that are not organized have higher crime due to the indifferent or accepting attitudes.”
Groomes said police participation is higher when citizens are willing to come out to “take back their streets.” The MPD’s job is more worthwhile and easier, she said, when there is mutual cooperation.
“I fervently believe citizens need to take responsibility for reclaiming our communities from criminals,” Henderson said. “We need to step up and do our part to help the police help us. The police cannot do it alone.”
Groomes said many citizens have answered the call of duty. “There has been over decade or more [of] successes with these walks especially in the crack era,” Groomes said.
“Our crime rate is half of what it was when I moved to my community ten years ago and the crime rate is steadily decreasing,” Henderson said. “My community is becoming safer each day and I am glad to do my part.”