TORONTO — With an Orthodox Jew at their helm, two dozen recent graduates of the Guardian Angels training program — resplendent in their trademark red berets and red satin bomber jackets — last week launched the first Canadian chapter of the New York-based law-and-order group.
Lou Hoffer, a former Toronto cop and security consultant, first considered the need for private crime fighters in Toronto two years ago after a rash of antisemitic incidents in the city’s Jewish neighborhoods. “I thought of the [Jewish Defense League], but the Guardian Angels deal with so many other social issues, not just antisemitism,” he told the Forward.
Hoffer, a father of three who became Orthodox following a Conservative upbringing, liked that the Angels were not a sectarian movement yet had, in his view, a mission consistent with his religious principles. “It’s a perfect marriage for me,” he said. “The group’s two slogans are ‘Dare To Care’ and ‘Role Models for Real Life.’ If that isn’t in line with Judaism, I don’t know what is.”
Though the Angels, founded by New Yorker Curtis Sliwa in 1979, have chapters in 60 cities around the globe, Hoffer’s attempt to bring the movement to Toronto didn’t take form until last December, when a surge of gun violence traumatized the city. The shooting scare peaked with the death of a 15-year-old girl who got caught in the crossfire of rival youth gangs while shopping in the city’s major downtown retail mall the day after Christmas.
Since then, Hoffer, as Canadian director of the organization, has been busy training some 70 members for the Toronto chapter, including the 24 who graduated last week. Each recruit takes a crash course in first aid, CPR, self-defense, conflict resolution and the basics of Canadian criminal law. Hoffer, who served for five years with the Toronto police before operating a private security firm, plans to do a cross-country tour in August to lay the groundwork for chapters in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
Last week, however, his focus was on Toronto, where his troops planned to launch the first of their street patrols — deploying six members armed, like their counterparts in other cities, with only two-way radios, which are used to contact the police should trouble arise. “We have no qualms about going into any area of the city,” Hoffer said.
The reaction to the new group has not been universally warm. The troop’s inaugural event, for which Sliwa came up from New York, was slated to take place at an apartment building for seniors. The residents’ security committee had invited the Angels to come. At the last minute, however, the building landlord canceled the event and had police escort Hoffer and his colleagues off the property.
Reaction to the Angels has been no less negative from Toronto’s law enforcement officials and Jewish communal leaders. Both Mayor David Miller and Police Chief Bill Blair have voiced opposition, fearing that the Angels will be a vigilante outfit. “Policing Toronto should be left to the police,” Miller said.
“I don’t see any necessity for this type of group,” said Leo Adler, director of national affairs at Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in Toronto. “The crime rate in Canada is so low compared to the U.S. that it’s considered laughable by U.S. authorities. While there are outbursts [of antisemitic vandalism] from time to time, I don’t see how having these people is going to put a stop to it.”
Hoffer, however, rejects the vigilante label, insisting that 90% of the Toronto group’s mission will comprise anti-bullying education in the schools, diverting at-risk youth from gangs and helping the homeless, seniors and alcoholics. He said that the emphasis on education and diversion represents a “softer approach” than the “strong arm” tactics of America’s Angels. But he dismisses the traditional notion of Toronto the Good. “New York City is now safer than Toronto,” he said.
Miller and Blair declined to meet with Hoffer and with his assistant national director, Stephen Paquette. “I don’t fault them [for their anti-Angels bias]; they’re not intimately familiar with our organization,” said Paquette, a 38-year-old Ojibway volunteer who first joined the Angels at age 16 (in the group’s first foray into Canada). He reflects the group’s ethnic diversity.
Paquette, who served with the Toronto Police Service and with the aboriginal police in Northern Canada, said, “The vast majority of my former colleagues are supportive of the organization.” While on patrol, Angels “try never to put themselves in harm’s way,” he said. “They are alert to subtle signs of potential violence,” he added, “knowing what a drug deal looks like, knowing what gang colors are.”
Unlike Neighborhood Watch and other volunteer anti-crime groups, however, the Angels are taught how — and sometimes they try — to make a citizen’s arrest. The American group’s Web site lists six members slain in the line of duty.
One quarter of the Toronto trainees are women, including Holly Weisflock, a 40-ish office worker who trained with the Angels in New York City and helped launch an Australian chapter. She expects to become one of the Toronto patrol leaders. It can be “a real bonus” to have a woman on a patrol, she said. “If a female is in trouble, she’s more likely to be comfortable talking about an incident and providing details to another woman.”
Weisflock speaks from experience. She was attacked twice before she first joined the Angels in the early 1990s. “That’s not why I joined,” she said, “but it has given me a lot more confidence. I’m not going to live in fear. I want to get my hands dirty. I want to be empowered.”
Hoffer has just as much zeal for the cause, but, mindful of the Angels’ two previous false starts here, he said he is taking a “slow and steady” approach. The group is applying for registered-charity tax status to enhance its fund-raising capacity. “We won’t rush into starting chapters,” he said. “We’ll take our time to ensure their longevity.”