Top Cop Lashes Out at Police-run Rec Centers

Last night’s City Council hearing on the Baltimore police budget focused in part on plans by the city to shutter the Police Athletic League program and turn centers run by cops for years to Rec and Parks.

I’ve been writing a lot about this issue here and in my column, mainly because this program was once hailed as the centerpiece of police administrations past. As I discovered when the city first announced the program, once copied all over the country, was being shut down, the city hasn’t cared about PAL in a long time. They shut down the nonprofit that used to be used to raise money, more than $1.7 million a year at one point, and the centers are shadows of their former selves.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III doesn’t want PAL Centers. Fair enough, and given their current state, I agree the children need something better. The commissioner last night quoted from one of my columns in which a girl told me she liked the cop at her PAL center but not the ones who patrol the streets. Bealefeld doesn’t want that division.

The Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton was at the hearing and here is his report:

Councilman Warren M. Branch challenged the police department and mayor’s office on criminal justice as to why they weren’t pursuing grant money to keep the PAL centers open. He noted that with summer rapidly approaching, his 13th District had very few safe recreational options for children.

Bealefeld gently mocked the idea that PAL centers had been promoted as the “backbone” of the police department’s outreach efforts, saying that it represented only 24 of the 2,400 officers in the agency. He said most beat cops “don’t even know that PAL centers exist” and said the children who attend them “might as well be anonymous,” and said the notion that they were a major outreach effort had been “excellent cover” for his predecessors.

He quoted from my column, in which I visited a PAL center and a young girl said the officer at the PAL center was nice, but the ones she sees on the streets were “different” and hassle people for no reason.

“I gotta tell you, that right there, that paragraph made the point in a way that I struggled with trying to make throughout this process,” Bealefeld said. “I cannot have kids in this city seeing one officer at a time as a good guy, and the other 2,400 as the ‘other guys.’  I have to figure out a way, to close that gap.”

To solve that problem, Bealefeld said police on day and night shifts will now be required to visit all recreational centers, not just PAL centers. “As long as those centers are open, cops will be required to go there throughout the day. And their supervisors will be required to make sure that they go there,” he said.

Branch wasn’t convinced.  He said his daughter will have to travel further to get to the nearest recreational center, and he worries that she will encounter gangs and could be hurt, or even worse, killed.

Bealefeld acknowledged the point, and noted that police are actively involved in the Eastern District – including the Police Explorers program, a “young girls to ladies” program, and other efforts. He also said the district had achieved the biggest drop in homicides, on a percentage basis, of any district in the city last year.

“We are tasking our police commands to maximize the programs that they are involved in,” he said.

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