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The Police Athletic League of Jacksonville Builds Trust and Stronger Communities

By David Boegaard

Young men are far more likely to engage in crimes than any other demographic group. Spirits are high at that age, when young people test limits, form an independent identity, and rebel against authority. And this basic trouble is amplified for the urban poor, who frequently lack safe, free spaces to explore and play. The Police Athletic League created to help fill precisely that gap for urban youth. In Jacksonville, the Police Athletic League has been in operation since 1972, and has worked with tens of thousands of young people. Their work serves to create trust between young people and police, and provides local youth with great opportunities and genuine leadership as citizens of the community.

In the early years of the 20th century, as social darwinists advanced theories about the intrinsic rank of different classes and races, Lieutenant Flynn in the New York City Police Department decided to take a different approach. Rather than dismissing the poor as natural born criminals, Flynn set out to question the leader of a local gang about the reasons they kept causing trouble.

"The gang member showed frustration with urban life and said 'we don't have any place to play and nothing to do,'" recounts Lieutenant Burton, the Police Athletic League of Jacksonville's Executive Director. After discussions with his colleagues on the police-force, Flynn formed a group to remedy the problem. "They found a playground and invited the kids to play baseball with police officers," says Burton. "Before the year ended, there were close to a dozen teams in the city." This organization became the Police Athletic League (PAL).

It was though a similar story that the Jacksonville Chapter was established, more than 40 years later. Norm Demers served as a street patrolman when he was getting started on the force. "Every day he saw young people gathered in alleys and on street corners," says Burton. "They seemed to have nothing better to do." He had already seen many of these kids end up in trouble, and he wanted to find a way to get them off that self-destructive track.

"Officer Demers personally purchased baseballs, bats and gloves and went to a neighborhood park to hand out the sports equipment from the trunk of his car," Burton tells us with pride. "In that moment, he found a way to make a difference in the lives of at-risk children, and so began the Police Athletic League of Jacksonville."

Today, PAL of Jacksonville serves a number of mutually reinforcing purposes. PAL offers alternate path for young men and women who see few opportunities in their daily life. "The concept began with sports programs," Burton notes, "but today we do much more. Afterschool care, academic assistance, mentoring relationships, and leadership development programs are just some of the many opportunities, in addition to sports teams, that PAL provides for more than 2,200 at-risk Jacksonville children every year."

The after-school work develops deep relationships between the kids and the officers who work with PAL, and that helps to build trust and respect. "The Police Athletic League of Jacksonville is built on the idea that a young person who respects police officers is much more likely to respect the laws they enforce," says Burton. By building resources to keep urban youth entertained and help further their education and other life goals, the Police Athletic League has managed to improve many hundreds of thousands of lives, while also lowering crime rates.

But perhaps the most important work of the Police Athletic League of Jacksonville is the sense of appreciation that is offered to every child. "The intangible resources we provide is authentic love and acceptance," says Burton. "Every child wants to be loved and validated." PAL strives to make sure that even kids with no home, or whose homes are places of strife, can feel like they have a real community that they can come back to and feel at home.

To create this sort of environment where students and law enforcement can find supportive community and gradually build trust and a lasting sense of home, PAL has focused especially on two programs. PAL's Youth and Education Success (YES) program operates after-school from four regional centers in the city of Jacksonville.

The YES Program works with at-risk youth between five and fourteen years old, throughout the school year. The YES Program has many facets to work help support the whole person, notes Burton "Students who participate in the Youth Education and Success (YES) Afterschool program receive academic instruction, homework assistance, cultural enrichment opportunities, physical fitness recreation, health and wellness education, character and leadership development, and a nutritious snack and/or a hot meal each day."

The second major program is PAL's Youth Development Council (YDC). This is a program developed to help foster leadership skills among teens aged 14 to 18, helping them to take control of their lives and cultivate the skills needed for college, work and life. To help develop independence, the YDC Program gives a great deal more autonomy to the teens, says Burton. "YDC teens run their own meetings, work on community service projects and participate in the State PAL YDC program."

The young people who take part in the Police Athletic League of Jacksonville come from a wide variety of circumstances. But they tend to share the characteristic that they don't have clear access to constructive, after-school activities. "Statistics show that the hours from 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on school days are prime time for youth to commit crimes and experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex," says Burton. "Combine that with the fact that across the United States 15.1 million children take care of themselves after school, and you have a formula for high juvenile crime."

For more than 40 years, PAL has been helping to break the cycle by providing a safe place for underserved children to go after school. Engaging at-risk youth during these critically important hours contributes to a significant reduction in juvenile crime, and helps build strong communities and good relations with law enforcement. "Especially now with what's going on across the nation between law enforcement and the community/our youth," notes Burton, "it's imperative for law enforcement officers to continue to bridge the gap and foster positive relationships with youth."

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