Mayor Martin O'Malley unveiled yesterday the city's plans for the Police Athletic League, an after-school program that has become tangled in the debate over how Baltimore should combat the scourge of street crime.
Police officers will remain at 18 of the 26 PAL centers citywide. At the other eight locations, PAL and its police representatives will be replaced by private community-service organizations after the school year ends in June.
"Recreation should not be the exclusive [domain] of the police," O'Malley said. "They have enough hard work to do."
Organizations seeking to take over the centers will be chosen in a competitive application process overseen by the Family League of Baltimore City Inc., a quasi-public, nonprofit agency that is pumping $500,000 into the conversion effort. The city is contributing another $500,000.
The O'Malley administration and its law-enforcement advisers have sought to pare down PAL so that more officers can be put on the street. The program's defenders have countered that the program helps reduce crime by providing kids with supervision, recreational opportunities and police role models.
The mayor said the new plan satisfies both sides. "By keeping the kids in mind, we were able to prove that multiple priorities don't have to be [mutually] defeating priorities," O'Malley said.
The future of the 18 surviving PAL centers is far from certain. The O'Malley administration's recently released crime-fighting plan notes the assignment of 88 officers to PAL and five to warrant patrol as a primary example of focusing "on appearance instead of reality."
Acting Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris -- whose name appears on the cover of that plan -- said the closing of the eight centers will free up 18 officers and six sergeants. Norris said that will be a "pretty significant" addition to the department's street force.
City Council President Sheila Dixon said that though the departure of police from all 26 PAL centers was not considered this time around, it is probably inevitable.
"I think eventually that will happen," Dixon said, adding that she hopes the centers will ultimately be supported through increases in parks and recreation funding.
The new plan ensures that PAL will continue for now. "There were a lot of people up in arms over [the possibility that] we'd get rid of it completely," Dixon said. "So I would say it's somewhat of a compromise."
William P. Miller, executive director of Greater Homewood Community Corp. and a member of a task force on PAL, said, "I do believe we struck a good compromise in terms of needs.
"I think the community is anxious about losing the police officers, and I think we'll need to work that through."