Daniel says 9 PAL sites will be shut

Closings will enable 20 more officers to work on streets

`A luxury we can't afford'

Critics say action meant to undermine Frazier's project

February 09, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel announced plans yesterday to close a third of the city's popular Police Athletic League recreation centers, enraging some community leaders, parents and youths who plan to fight the move.

Daniel, noting the department is down 400 officers, said the closures are meant to put 20 more patrol officers on the street. While Mayor Martin O'Malley supports the closures, some doubted the small number of officers would reduce street crime, and charged that the plan is intended to undermine the efforts of former Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

"We are just trying to stretch our officers out a little," O'Malley said in an interview. "To have more officers assigned to PAL than the central narcotics unit is a problem. Something is wrong with that equation."

O'Malley, who did not attend Daniel's announcement at police headquarters, said there are roughly 30 narcotics officers and more than 50 PAL officers.

The centers are being closed despite recent overflow crowds at PAL functions, statistics showing they reduce neighborhood juvenile crime, and bitter opposition from community activists.

Children at Mora Crossman Pal Center, at the John Ruhrah Elementary School in Greektown, yesterday wrote "Please don't shut-down the PAL Centers" on a chalkboard and started a letter-writing campaign to Daniel and O'Malley.

The children have the support of City Council President Sheila Dixon and Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who said they want questions answered before the officers leave nine of 27 PAL centers by summer.

The nationally recognized PAL program began locally in 1995, when Frazier took over several city Parks Department community centers, stationed police officers there and began after-school programs designed as havens for youth. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called the local programs a "model for the nation."

Funded largely through corporate donations, the PAL program has seen thousands of youths flock to its sports activities, camping trips, fashion shows, computer training sessions and cultural activities. About two officers are stationed at each center, and together they oversee about 4,000 youths every month. In 1998, a police department study concluded that crime involving youngsters was dramatically lower in neighborhoods with PAL centers.

Hindering Frazier project?

The PAL centers' future has been in doubt since O'Malley's election. O'Malley, a long-time PAL and Frazier critic, insists more police officers need to be fighting crime -- not playing sports or organizing art clinics.

Frazier, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Some police department insiders -- noting yesterday's announcement amounts to less than one additional officer per shift per district -- characterized the move as O'Malley and Daniel trying to derail Frazier's pet project.

Daniel responded that most precincts are down at least one to three officers per shift. On top of that, the city's annual murder count has exceeded 300 for a decade.

Fraternal Order of Police President Gary McLhinney agreed with Daniel, saying, "Right now, we need officers on the street fighting crime. PAL is a luxury we can not afford."

Daniel said O'Malley asked him to approach the PAL board of directors -- made up of 22 community and business leaders -- last month and form a plan that would keep most centers open but return more officers to the street.

Trying to save program

The board, desperate to save PAL, proposed closing nine centers, which will be consolidated into existing PAL sites, said Jamie McDonald, the board's vice president. Over the weekend, Daniel said a plan to move PAL headquarters to the old F&M building in Remington has been put on hold.

Both police officials and board members, who raise $1 million a year for PAL center operating expenses, appeared pleased with the agreement yesterday.

Daniel called PAL "one of the best programs for kids in the country" and said the 20 additional officers will go a long way to curtailing violent crime and bolstering precinct-level officer morale.

"It is certainly not symbolic," Daniel said, "If you get 20 here and 20 there -- it is still not enough to get you to 400, but it helps."

`A balance'

Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of the Safe and Sound Kids Program, called the decision to close some centers "a strategy to balance both police commitment to battle crime and the development of our young people."

Police officials and O'Malley hope other public or private groups will operate the centers as recreation leagues or after-school programs.

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