At Former Pal Centers, A Transition

Crime Beat

On Towanda Avenue, Presents Of Toys Mark A Goodbye After 15 Years

July 02, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Peter.hermann@baltsun.com

At what had been a Police Athletic League Center on Tuesday and then a recreation center on Wednesday, the kids hustling up and down the basketball court in the gym on Towanda Avenue in Northwest Baltimore barely noticed a change that by design is slow and subtle.

Officer Phil Dixon was there, in uniform and wearing his sidearm, running the court with the kids just as he always has for the past two years.

"Take your time, take your time, take your time," he yelled at the youngsters before barking, "Shoot!"

But there was a new face, too. Coach George Jackson, a large man from the Department of Recreation and Parks, had no gun but there was a whistle locked to his lips.

"You can't steal everything," he told one boy after he nearly knocked over an opposing player while going for the ball. "You only get five fouls."

In about two weeks, the transition over, Dixon will be gone from what is now the Towanda Recreation Center and Jackson will be a permanent fixture. Across the city on Wednesday, 14 similar centers run by city cops since the mid-1990s went back to the control of the recreation department. Two, including one at Rosemont, closed permanently.

Also on Wednesday, at Towanda and at the other centers, police cadets unloaded toys - board games, jump ropes, puzzles and baseball bats - as sort of a goodbye present to end a program once hailed as the epitome of community policing but now regarded as a luxury the city can no longer afford.

Officers will still be a part of all city rec centers and will be required to stop in at the ones on their posts. Also, officers participating in a tuition-reimbursement plan are required to spend 10 hours in a rec center, in uniform but on their own time.

"We are not abandoning the kids," said Officer Troy Harris, a city police spokesman who spoke at Wednesday's event at Towanda. "We have to give the kids time to get to know the new people. They formed bonds with the officers, and we're not just going to abruptly take them out."

Inside the gym, Dixon took a quick break. He's been working in PAL for five years and at Towanda for two. He proudly wears a pin on his lapel that reads "PAL," affixed to the place where other officers have pins for their district, such as "ED" for Eastern and "WD" for Western.

The PAL program used to be a coveted assignment. with officers selected by the police commissioner, who at the time who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the program aimed at reclaiming the city's lost youth. Present-day police commanders and rec leaders don't think much of officers playing counselors, and the budget has long been well under what is needed to keep the centers viable.

Still, angry residents packed community meetings protesting the change, saying officers serving as mentors could keep their kids safe and be strong role models for kids without fathers. Dixon demurred when asked about the switch but did offer one note of caution: "If they do it right, then it can work."

Coach Jackson simply smiled when asked the same question, tactfully saying, "I'd love to have the partnership."

After the toys were unloaded - the private Police Foundation donated $30,000 worth to all the centers combined - more than a dozen excited children started ripping open the boxes and playing. Coach Jackson told them, "Today is a blessed day. We want you to thank Baltimore's finest for giving us these gifts."

With that, the children applauded and in unison shouted, "Thank you, officers."

The cadets and their trainers beamed through the honor as Harris told the kids, "You're Baltimore's finest also. You are the future."

The children know that change is at hand.

"I think it's great to have all this," said 8-year-old Brandon Cooper, who is going into the fifth grade. "Some children don't have toys, and now we have toys to play with." Of Dixon, the youngster added, "He's pretty good. He helps us with stuff. I'm going to miss him."

Outside, the officials from the Police Department and from the recreation department gathered and chatted. It was a good day, they concluded, not a goodbye but a Christmas in July.

Fifteen years ago, city officers took over this center from rec and parks because it had attracted more teens selling drugs than children playing with toys. Police never erased the "Towanda Recreation Center" letters from the front wall, but simply added a "PAL" sign of their own on the other side of the door.

Soon that sign will come down, and rec and parks will be on its own.

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