Charles Maxwell believes he can make a difference on the streets of Portland, helping keep residents safe despite having no official city authority.

Maxwell, 62, is the impetus in Portland for a new chapter of the Guardian Angels, a group known for their distinctive red berets and willingness to get involved when others won’t.

“I wanted to volunteer in the community doing something for it and making it safer,” said Maxwell, who said he volunteered with the Guardian Angels in San Francisco when he lived there.

The group functions as a sort of Neighborhood Watch with the added directive to intervene if people are in danger or if members witness certain crimes.

Organizers of the local chapter are in the process of recruiting members and small posters have sprung up on utility poles throughout downtown in recent weeks. Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa has scheduled a visit to the city Oct. 24 to speak to potential recruits.

“For the most part we’re eyes and ears, a visual deterrent and positive role models,” Sliwa said in a telephone interview from New York.

The Guardian Angels, formed in 1979 to deter violent crime on New York City subways, historically have been viewed skeptically by police. When organizers tried to start a chapter in Portland in the 1980s, city leaders discouraged the group.

Portland Police Chief James Craig says he has no problem with residents supporting the police mission in their communities, serving as another conduit of information to police.

However, he said the group does not represent Portland police and they are not authorized to enforce the law like the trained professionals in the department.

“My sense has always been if there’s another set of eyes and ears in the community, we don’t block that. If you want to provide information to us on criminal activity we’ll take it from any source,” Craig said. “We don’t want them acting as if they’re law enforcement because they absolutely are not and we’re not endorsing them as such.”

Maxwell became familiar with the Guardian Angels in 2001 when he moved from Portland to San Francisco. There, he participated in the group’s three-month training regimen — much of it on verbal techniques for calming down someone who is agitated — and helped patrol some of the city’s high-crime neighborhoods. He returned to Portland a few years ago.

Maxwell said he has noticed an increase in reports of crime, from assaults to people being accosted.

Maxwell said there are five people including himself who have signed on to the Portland effort so far.

Sliwa said recruits must be at least 18 years old (or 16 with a parent’s permission) and pass a background check; they don’t need to be a martial arts expert.

“They think you have to be the second coming of Bruce Lee,” he said. “You just look at Charles (Maxwell). Charles could be drinking Geritol and taking a Ben Gay bath,” he joked. Sliwa calls him “Aarp,” after the retired persons organization, AARP.

Volunteers are expected to sign up for two four-hour shifts per week, usually late at night, initially focusing on the Old Port.

In the early days, members would have to find a pay phone to call police, he said. Now they have instant cell phone communications with each other and with emergency dispatchers.

Sliwa said it is the Guardian Angels’ willingness to intervene that sets them apart from a local neighborhood watch.

“We do physical interventions, which means if you’re patrolling in the Old Port, you’ll be breaking up a lot of fights and disputes,” he said. “If a crime is being committed, you’re going to exercise your right to make a citizen arrest and hold them until the police arrive.”

Recruits also must be certified in CPR and first aid because a Guardian Angel handles 10 medical emergencies for every one criminal act, he said. The volunteers can help someone while waiting for rescue workers to arrive, he said.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]