Mayor David Miller doesn’t want to meet with him; neither does Police Chief Bill Blair. But that hasn’t stopped Lou Hoffer, the national director of the Guardian Angels of Canada, being named one of the 10 most important people in Toronto by Macleans. There’s no question that, for better or worse, he and the Angels have brought a discussion of law, order and the city’s fraying fabric to the fore.
Don’t believe all the bad hype or accusations of vigilantism, says Hoffer. The ex-Toronto cop is a true believer, repeatedly rattling off the Angels’ vital stats (World’s Largest Safety Patrol Organization, 27 years, 80 cities…). Yeah, he has the slightest bit of a showman’s gleam in his eye but since what he’s selling is something this city could actually use, it’s easy to buy in. It was after last year’s “Summer of the Gun” that he decided he could bring the non-profit organization to Toronto and maybe do some good.
Torontoist sat down with Hoffer in the Angels’ office which is currently operating out of his Thornhill home.
When you decided you wanted to get the Angels going in Toronto, what did you have to go through?
Back in January I realized that this was such a phenomenal organization and got the ball rolling in Toronto and it got steamrolling. I found myself not only the Toronto chapter leader but also I became the national director.
Now here I am…we have chapters opening in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver. We were in Ottawa last week – they weren’t too receptive but that’s okay. Now we’ll go to Montreal.
One of the misconceptions that it’s out-of-towners … but it’s only local people that run and operate and keep the chapter going. The chapter will only survive if the local people, the community, want to carry it.
So why the bad rap?
What people don’t realize is that 90% of what the Guardian Angels do has nothing to do with dealing with criminal activity. Of course what everyone concentrates on is fighting crime because that’s what’s exciting.
I was a police officer, back in the early 90s, and of course when people find out the first thing they ask is, “Tell me about the car chases, tell me about – did you ever shoot anyone?”
They don’t say, “Tell me about the time you handed out a parking ticket,” – that’s not exciting. So, it’s the same thing with the Guardian Angels . People want to hear about the time that we intervened in criminal activity but that’s very rarely what we’re doing. Most of the time we’re just out there being good neighbours. It’s just a phenomenal organization and it goes beyond the borders and boundaries of religion, ethnicity and I feel blessed that I’ve been able to be the catalyst bringing it to Toronto and now across Canada
What was your first association with the Angels?
About two years ago there was a rash of anti-Semitic incidents, right here in York Region, and I’d followed the Guardian Angels for over 20 years. I was very impressed with the work that they did in the United States and around the world. And I reached out to [GA founder] Curtis Sliwa and he was just such a gentleman and he asked, “How can we help?”
And I told him about the rash of anti-Semitic incidents and unfortunately, for a number of reasons…it never materialized. About 10 months ago, because of a rash of gun violence in Toronto, I decided to move forward and see if this organization can help in Toronto.
And then you’re met with these accusations or this perception you’re some kind of vigilante group…
Education is only way we’re going to get away from this vigilante stigma. Nothing could be further from the truth, in over 27 years, in over 80 cities, there has never been a Guardian Angel convicted of any civil or criminal offence.
You can see that I’m no gargantuan, foaming-at-the mouth individual. [Torontoist: Hoffer looks like he weighs a little more than 160 pounds, soaking wet] The organization here in Canada is lead by two former police officers – we are well versed in security issues, in the laws of the land…and we are extremely, extremely accountable and totally transparent.
When you were a cop, did you feel the need for some group to fill this gap?
Oh, definitely! I mean… when I was on, community policing was just coming to fruition. The police were just starting to realize the importance of the community, and to start working together. Organizations like the Guardian Angels are such a benefit because it brings the communities, the citizens, out and gets them involved
There’s no police force in the world that has the resources to police alone. I mean, communities and police have to work together. An organization like ours allows a citizen to make a tangible difference on the street.
We’re not policing, we’re subordinate to the police, we don’t want to police. We want – and I’ll steal the line from Mayor Miller – we leave policing to the police…What we want to is be good witnesses and that’s something that’s so lacking in today’s society….. People are worried that Toronto and parts of Canada are going the way of New York City circa 1980.
In New York, Rudy Giuliani really turned things around and…in 1993 he publicly credited the Guardian Angels for helping reduce crime in New York. [Current NYC Mayor] Michael Bloomberg is also a strong supporter.
It must make it frustrating that in Toronto you can’t even get a meeting with the mayor or police chief…
Yeah, and it’s funny because Toronto, of course, is where I served as a police officer for over five years…it’s funny because the flipside is out west, in Vancouver they’ve actually offered to train our members. So they are very progressive, the Vancouver Police Service.
So, here in Toronto, Chief Bill Blair and Mayor Miller won’t give us the opportunity to have an open dialogue. And that’s unfortunate because all we ask is to meet with them.
You don’t live downtown, you’re out in the suburbs…
Crime’s coming. Social issues are coming. Tell me you don’t see…I saw, three days ago at Centre Street and Dufferin a guy holding a sign, “need money.” It’s coming up here. Houses are being broken into…we’re getting it up here.
So you feel you can relate to what’s going on downtown?
Are we going to isolate ourselves? Am I going to wait until it comes here and sell the house and move north? That’s not going to solve the problem.
My three kids will hopefully live in the city when they grow up…we have to change things. I think the police are doing an amazing job. As much as they mayor doesn’t want to meet with me, I think he’s done a great job. But I just think that no government, no police, no social agency can do it on their own. And I also think that it’s our responsibility to play a part in stopping the downward spiral of crime and social issues.
Have you been getting a mixed bag of applicants?
They’re pretty good. They go online and see our application process [which is] very in-depth. Police check, training. After really getting to know them over three to four months of training you get an idea of who these people are and if they’ll work out. Definitely we’ve had to ask a few applicants to step down because they don’t fit the Guardian Angels mold…Again, it’s like any organization. We’re not going to jeopardize our good name…We are so under the microscope.
You’ve been having patrols for a few weeks now. What’s been the reaction from the neighbourhoods?
More good than bad…definitely some people aren’t happy but that’s more from misinformation, the vigilante stigma. People think we’re going to shake them down. People don’t realize who we are and what we do…We’re not the morality police.
What’s the reaction you get from officers on the street?
Beautiful, we get phenomenal support from the rank and file on the street because cops on the street realize how much of an asset the Guardian Angels can be. We’re the eyes and ears on the street…we travel in patrols with a minimum of six men and women – credible witnesses, walking around for the purpose of maintaining peace and out for one reason: just to help. There’s no ulterior motive.
What, for you, shows that it’s working? How do you see tangible evidence that you’re accomplishing something?
It’s just the thank yous that we receive day in and day out in emails and on the street. People come out and thank us for being there…senior citizens thank us for helping them get home…most of the training and interaction on the street is dealing with medical emergencies.
It’s mostly just being good neighbours as opposed to a crime fighting organization…we just want to get the message out there of who we are and what we do.
Thanks to the Thornhill Post who will be running a more elaborate version of this article in September.