Police withdraw from PAL centers, relationships with kids

March 29, 2009|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The Robert C. Marshal Police Athletic League Center on Pennsylvania Avenue needs a makeover - the furniture is worn, the chairs mismatched, the floors grungy. A sign taped to the front door advertises a Spring Fling Dance, a fundraiser costing $7.

These are signs of age more than neglect, but also signs of a Police Department wanting out of the recreation business.

Not including salaries, cops spent just $161,050 to operate 18 PAL centers in fiscal 2009, a paltry amount compared with the program's heyday a decade ago when it was hailed as a national model and lauded by the White House for reviving the old boys' clubs in the city's most neglected neighborhoods.

In 2002, police spent $1.7 million on the PAL and still had $800,000 left over. The program started in 1995 under Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who ran it as a nonprofit and relentlessly worked the phones, the political corridors and the party circuit seeking donations until he left in October 1999.

In May 2003, the nonprofit quietly folded with a $256,000 deficit. Lee A. Sheller, the nonprofit's lawyer at the time, told me that commissioners after Frazier simply lost interest in raising money and that funding shifted to the city.

On July 1, the police officer assigned to Marshal, Charles E. Lee, and 23 of his colleagues will walk out of 18 PAL centers and go back to fighting crime. Two centers are closing for good, two others are going to the school system and the rest, including Marshal, are being turned over to the Department of Recreation and Parks.

On paper, it's nothing more than a swap between city agencies required by a failing economy. But at the Marshal PAL on Wednesday, Tanisha Rodgers, 11, and her friend Shaun Douglas, 9, struggled to understand what was happening to their little comfortable world, of which Officer Charles E. Lee is such an integral part.

"It's closing?" Tanisha asked, fidgeting in a plastic chair in the office during a break from jumping rope in the gym. "He cares," Tanisha said of Lee. "Since he's a police officer, he can tell people what to do. He lets us know when we do something wrong." Added Shaun: "He doesn't let people fight in here because everyone has to be friends."

I visited the PAL center with Leticia Fitts, the academic director for the nonprofit Noble Enrichment for Children and Youth Inc., which partners with Marshal to help with programming. Fitts told me her group has been expanding services but might stop. She is reluctant to join Recreation and Parks, which she fears will be a mere caretaker.

"Where's the money?" Fitts asked as we walked through a dingy hall. "If Rec and Parks takes over, the only thing we will have is a clean building. Having the police here creates a safe haven. If the police aren't here, where are these kids going to go? Out there, back to the corners. Then we'll have more crime."

When the mayor announced budget cuts March 18, the recreation and parks director said, "We don't want to waste officers' time" running rec centers, and the police commissioner talked of cops "staying in their lanes."

Tom Frazier didn't make any friends at rec and parks when he staged a coup and took over their centers a decade ago, complaining that drug dealers had supplanted kids on the basketball courts, and many cops did think devoting officers to kids programs was a waste of time. Judging from the comments at the news conference a few weeks ago, it sounds like officials were using the dim budget to cut a program they never liked rather than being forced to cut something they found worthwhile.

The minuscule budget that the PAL is operating under these days shows that police gave up on the PAL long before this round of budget cuts, long before this administration, and maybe the face-lift the Robert C. Marshal PAL Center needs can only come by ending PAL as we know it.

Starting July 1, Marshal will be open until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. (the PAL closes at 8 p.m.). True, the programs will be different, the cops will be gone, but the police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, said earlier this month that that instead of having 24 cops who know kids, he wants beat officers to stop in rec centers so all the officers get to know all the kids.

The children at Marshal see two different kinds of police. They see Officer Lee, dressed in blue sweats and a yellow PAL shirt. "He's good. He's nice to me," said 9-year-old Martiera Kelly. I asked her about the cops she sees on Pennsylvania Avenue: "They're different. They mess with you and tell you to get off the corners even when you're doing nothing."

Martiera needs to see the cops as men and women who help the good people by taking away the bad people. She also needs a safe area in which to play. I hope going from an armed counselor to an unarmed counselor won't change that, even on Pennsylvania Avenue.

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