The summer months offer 13-year-old Darryl Parker a stark choice: He can pocket $200 a week selling cocaine for his cousin or play soccer with Baltimore police officers.
"My cousin offered to buy me a car if I sold for him, but I said no," Darryl recalled between games at the Police Athletic League's soccer tournament two weeks ago. "He wanted to shoot me for not selling drugs. I just walked away."
One year after police opened the first PAL center with 75 children in an old 7-Eleven store in Northeast Baltimore, the program is overflowing with children and teen-agers. Now, more than 2,500 youngsters participate. Starting today, 11 more PAL centers are scheduled to open -- in city recreation centers taken over by the police.
But while city leaders are heralding the success of PAL -- which is receiving tens of thousands of dollars in private grant money -- the Police Department's aggressiveness is provoking debate over the effectiveness of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Even though police maintain a successful partnership with some recreation centers, such as one at O'Donnell Heights, officers say that many being taken over are unsafe, underused or poorly run.
"We can do a better job," said one top police commander. "A good number of the rec centers were mismanaged. No one cared."
But City Councilwoman Joan Carter Conway, upset over the takeover of the DeWeese and Waverly recreation centers in North Baltimore, complained that police are not the best people to mentor children.
She said the police initiative has led to a "total disruption to communities and to families and to the programs provided to the youth. I don't see police having the background in recreation. Their background is in law enforcement."
But Darryl is a PAL success story. The young teen-ager, scared of the drug dealers who ply their trade outside the front door of his West Baltimore rowhouse, joined the athletic league on his own to escape the violence.
He said a relative was killed a few years ago for refusing to sell cocaine. A dealer once pulled a gun on him for the same reason.
"I'm happy to do anything to stay off the street," said Darryl, who wants to be a lawyer. "It's real bad in my neighborhood. They sell in front of my house and make it real hard for me to sleep. It keeps me up at night. My grades went down."
Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said PAL builds up "social capital" with youngsters like Darryl, which the police tap later to prevent a shooting or a riot. That, he argues, makes it worth the time and money to use full-time officers.
From his eighth floor office the commissioner sees a troubled city of dying industries and a fleeing middle class, which create "haves and have-nots" that he says are "a recipe for civil disorder."
"Every time a cop helps a kid in a computer lab, I put $1 in social capital in the bank account," said Frazier, who has made PAL a top priority. "Thats what PAL is. The theme of the Police Department is that we are part of the social fabric of the city. We want 15-year-olds to say: 'The cops are our friends.' "
Police clubs for children are an old idea. A program similar to PAL was discontinued in Baltimore six years ago because of budget constraints. Now, with the exception of salary for the 30 officers assigned full-time to PAL, private grants and donations cover the tab -- $217,000 in the first year.
Frazier wants 29 PAL centers set up in the city. He constantly scours the streets for free weights, gym and exercise equipment, camping tools (he envisions a permanent campground at Fort Smallwood Park), television sets and popcorn machines.
While city rec centers cannot afford to buy new equipment, Frazier got a $50,000 grant for the PAL center at Canton Middle School, which now has 70 computers. He has secured free fishing rods seized from law-breaking fishermen.
Young people are responding.
PAL's midnight basketball leagues in Southeast Baltimore routinely attract up to 300 teen-agers. On Friday, more than 540 children packed the Booker T. Washington auditorium for a soccer awards ceremony.
At the soccer tournament two weeks ago, volunteer coaches and police officers guided hundreds of youngsters through a day of matches. Bob Caffrey coached a rambunctious group from Carroll Park against a team from Southeast Baltimore.
Caffrey said program enrollment exploded this year, with more children signing up than could play. "I like what Thomas Frazier has done," he said. "He has put resources into it and made this a priority."
Youngsters say much the same thing when asked why they joined: "Because I love to be here and off the street," says Michae Bell, 13. "When I'm on the street, I'm in trouble."
Seventh-grader David Crawford, 13, joined the Goodnow Road PAL center last year. "He could barely read four-letter words," said Officer Lori Wallace. Volunteers from Morgan State University and Coppin State College tutored him, and his grades shot up from D's to B's.