Move to Pull Balto. Co. Police From Rec Centers Sparks Concern

… Citing economic pressures, need for more cops on streets, county pulls officers out of PAL centers …

By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

8:05 PM EDT, May 8, 2011

Shanae Johnson spent many high school afternoons at the Hillendale Police Athletic League Center, where interactions with officers influenced her decision to join the Baltimore County force 10 years ago.

For the past four years, she has supervised the police-run Cockeysville center, serving as a role model for the 40 to 60 kids who come through the doors daily.

But with more police needed on the street, full-time officers like Johnson will no longer run the county’s nine PAL centers. And while Johnson understands the rationale for the move, she said it will be hard to leave the job behind.

“I’m still happy to have a job,” she said. “I definitely would rather be here with my kids.”

Baltimore County, the last locality in the region with a strong PAL program, is backing away from police-run rec centers. The move reflects shifting priorities in a time of hard budget realities, and it’s making some parents and recreation staff members uneasy.

Parkville parent Eboni Jackson is concerned about safety and has contacted police and county officials, including County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

“I have witnessed fights about to start, and just having a police officer there deters them,” she said. “I don’t feel as though a ‘presence’ every now and then, maybe once a week, is enough. I feel they need to be there every day.”

Just last year, as Baltimore dealt with the aftermath of a controversial decision to close its centers, the county promoted its commitment to PAL — a crime prevention program that offers educational, athletic and recreational activities to create better relationships between police officers and youth. But starting June 1, the county Department of Recreation and Parks will take over.

County Police Chief James Johnson, who is not related to the officer, has described the change as a “positive move.” All centers will remain open and offer the same programming, he said, and officers will continue to have a “strong presence.”

As Baltimore’s recreation centers became overrun by drug dealers in the 1990s, city officers took them back, dedicating full-time personnel to restoring nearly 30 centers. Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier appeared at the White House in 1998 to promote the city’s approach. But by the early 2000s, city officials no longer wanted police officers to run the centers — which by that time had dwindled to 18 — as money dried up.

In 2009, the city gave 14 PAL centers back to its recreation and parks department, closed two and handed two others to the school system.

Baltimore County is currently the only local jurisdiction with a full-time PAL program and standalone centers. The nine PALs include eight free-standing buildings. The Dundalk PAL is housed in the Dundalk Community Center.

By contrast, Howard County sends a trailer to various park and recreation centers each summer.

“The Baltimore County approach is much wiser, given its resources,” Johnson, the police chief, said. “[We looked at] what is the most efficient way to maintain center hours and funding, but make good use of our police officers.”

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm said he was outraged when he first heard that officers would have to staff the city’s PALs, but that he quickly came around.

“When you walk into those centers and you see the rapport the officers have with those young people, and the feeling the young people have for these officers, I said, ‘Let’s give this a try and see what happens,’ ” Hamm said. “In the final analysis, we found that police, citizens and kids had more in common than differences. That’s what PAL centers were able to do for the city.”

However, times change and needs change, Hamm said. The changes in Baltimore County show that resources are likely needed elsewhere, he said.

Inside the Cockeysville PAL on a recent afternoon, kids clustered in groups, some chatting with friends or studying. In the gymnasium, two boys played pingpong while another pair worked to build a fort out of wrestling mats. Outside, a game of basketball was under way.

Cameron Cooper, a junior at Dulaney High School, started coming to the center in the fifth grade. “I like how we interact with Officer Shanae. Then you get to build a relationship that you wouldn’t ordinarily see.”

Dulaney High senior Octavius Gilbert said he plans to become a police officer. He’s been coming since the sixth grade. “The officers here are really great. Most of them talk to me about life lessons and how to be a good role model.”

At 31 years old, “Officer Shanae” doesn’t look much older than some of the teenagers, but the badge on a chain around her neck sets her apart. In a few short weeks, she will move to the Franklin Precinct in Reisterstown to work the midnight shift.

Working with the kids, “you get to know them and they get to know you,” she said. “I will try to come back once or twice a week, but working the midnight shift, I’m not sure how that’s going to work out.”

Cockeysville PAL recreation coordinator Rob Grossman said he also has reservations about the move. “It’s going to be a difficult change when you have to pull out the officers,” he said.

Jackson, the parent, had high praise for the officer in charge of the Hillendale PAL, which her daughter attends. “Not only is he there to protect them, he’s their friend. Those children have a relationship with him. To pull them out, I feel will be detrimental.”

But not everyone feels it will be a bad thing. Barbara McAllister, president of the Hillendale Improvement Association, said some residents have complained to her in the last year about supervision at PAL centers. “Maybe that will help to improve things,” she said.

Ultimately, the move comes down to dollars and cents — in this case, the police chief’s belief that recreation staff members are better equipped to handle the day-to-day supervision, which cost his department $1.6 million last year. Under rec and parks, the cost of running the centers is expected to drop to about $840,000, largely because of lower salaries in that agency.

In addition to its work with PAL, over the years the county has enhanced officers’ interactions with youth in other ways, the chief said, such as increasing the number of school resource officers. The chief said parents probably won’t notice the changes. Police will still accompany youths on PAL field trips, school resource officers who are not working summer school will be assigned to the centers, and patrol officers will be encouraged to drop in, he said.

“Police will still be involved,” he said, “but they won’t be doing the nitty-gritty rec center supervision.”

PAL formats vary widely nationwide. Some are one-person operations; others are fully staffed by police personnel.

“PAL doesn’t have a cookie-cutter approach,” said Michael Dillhyon, executive director of the National Association of Police Athletics/Activities Leagues. “Nothing says that one model works better than another. It’s about what is the best fit.”

Hamm said that parents and residents will now have to take greater interest in what happens at the centers.

“Citizens have to be ever-vigilant,” Hamm said. “Visit those centers more often, and keep in contact with police if they see anything in those centers that is potentially dangerous or unhealthy.”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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