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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Guardians without a cause?
Madison's Angels endeavor to get off the ground
Jeff Callen: 'People sometimes ask me if I'm serious. Well, I'm here, aren't I?'
Jeff Callen: 'People sometimes ask me if I'm serious. Well, I'm here, aren't I?'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

With a fixed gaze, Jeff Callen watches police arrest two men who have just pushed over a newsstand in front of the Stop & Shop Grocery on State Street. An accomplice runs from the scene, and Callen, the Guardian Angels' Madison coordinator, chases him for a few blocks, without success.

"Forget about him. He's gone," says Miguel Fuentes to Callen. It is the Friday before Halloween, and Fuentes, the Guardian Angels' Midwest coordinator, has brought four members of the Chicago chapter to join Callen and a recruit from Stoughton to "patrol" State Street. Donning their trademark red berets, the Angels greet everyone they pass, from the police to the homeless, handing out recruitment fliers.

"Right now, it's about getting a presence out there," says Callen. "Some people are skeptical, and recruitment is going slow. People might have this preconceived notion that we're a street gang."

Callen, 38, previously a Guardian Angel in Phoenix, has been working since August to start a Madison chapter. Despite setbacks, he remains optimistic that the all-volunteer crime-fighting group will take off. He thinks the police are stretched thin and could benefit from local Guardian Angels monitoring criminal opportunities in dark stairwells and parking lots.

"We just want to make sure everyone gets home safe," says Callen.

Already, the group has found several allies within Madison's downtown business community.

"They were a great presence in Chicago where I grew up," says Jason, business manager at Real Chili, 449 State St. "Just being here would be a deterrent to all the drug dealing I see going on outside at three in the morning."

Jason, who wouldn't give his last name, considers the Guardian Angels friends - especially Fuentes, who he knew before moving to Madison. He worries about them: "If one of the Angels is put in a situation where they have to use force, there may be a lawsuit."

Diane Doughman, owner of Mimosa Books, just off State Street on Gilman, has spoken to Callen several times about the effects of crime on business. She thinks the Angels can make a positive difference. "There's only so many police," she says. "And the community may very well embrace those who want to keep the downtown safe."

In other quarters, however, the idea of Guardian Angels in Madison is being met with skepticism, despite a rash of muggings and assaults that have focused concern on the safety of the city's downtown.

"The mayor feels solutions are best found in the community," says mayoral spokesman George Twigg. "Outside groups like the Guardian Angels bring the possibility of vigilante activity."

When Madison Police Chief Noble Wray met last August with Curtis Sliwa, the group's founder, he welcomed the Angels as another set of "eyes and ears" to share information.

Not having heard from them since, Wray wonders if the current Angels' incarnation will mirror the last time they came to Madison, in the early 1990s. Wray, then a beat officer in the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood, says the Guardian Angels didn't foster a connection with the community. He is skeptical they'll be able to do so today.

"City development and neighborhoods were the ones who dealt with the gang problem," Wray says. "The Guardian Angels just came and left."

Callen, who has lived in Madison since 1998, agrees that, to be effective, the Guardian Angels must be made up of local residents. But since he was chosen as the Madison leader in August, he has only been able to get one person from Stoughton and two from DeForest to commit to training. Four others from the area, he says, are considering filling out applications.

For Callen, forming a Madison chapter has been a frustrating experience.

"As soon as I post up a flier, you see someone pulling it down," he says. "People sometimes ask me if I'm serious. Well, I'm here, aren't I?'"

At the moment, Callen is mainly just talking to businesses and people he meets on "patrol," occasionally by himself. Members of the Chicago chapter, led by Fuentes, come some weekends to show more of a presence to aid recruitment.

Recruits must go through a background check before they can start their three-month training. Callen says he trains his recruits on first aid and how to make a citizen's arrest, sometimes going on a patrol with them around State Street.

The recruits are taught to work as a team and to summon police when faced with a crime, although they may try to corner the violator until police arrive. If the criminal resists, they may restrain his or her arms and legs.

"We're not going to start beating on the guy," Callen says.

By day, Callen does construction work; he puts money from his own pocket into business cards and fliers. The Chicago chapter, which receives money from the Guardian Angels' headquarters in New York, has given Callen a cell phone where people interested in joining or supporting the Madison Angels can leave messages. The number is 608-308-4297.

"Not much equipment is needed," Callen says. "Just a pen, notepad, a flashlight and my head."

Court records show that Callen has several criminal convictions for issuing worthless checks, twice in Grant County, once in La Crosse County and once in Dane County, all dating to 2000. "I wasn't handling things right," Callen says of this time in his life, which he sees as a turning point.

Sentenced to two years of probation, Callen tried to atone for his mistakes through volunteer work at the VA Hospital. He hopes a solid Guardian Angels organization will be another way to do that. But first, he must raise enough money and awareness to make it work.

Doughman, of Mimosa, has given Callen money to cover half of the cost of a police scanner. And a downtown advertising school, Extra Bold, has agreed to help the Madison Angels get their message out.

"I keep records of all the people who donate money for supplies," says Callen. "I issue a receipt. If I don't use the money, I would give it back."

Ultimately, Callen is hoping to build a solid Angels organization and branch out to areas beyond State Street. "People have to get to know you," he says. "It takes time."

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