Police Athletic League: Improving Relationship between Police Officers And Communities
Law enforcement’s tasks primarily focus on the punitive, such as catching bad guys and throwing them in jail, but other strategies are proactive, including helping to deter people from criminal acts.
The Police Athletic League (now sometimes called the Police Activities and Athletic League) is one way that many police departments turn the tables on crime. These organizations are chapters of a national nonprofit which encompasses a variety of programs aimed at channeling the energies of at-risk urban youth.
The Police Athletic League traces its roots to police commissioners who, in 1914, created opportunities for children to play in empty lots and created organized programs such as Junior Police that made allies of the kids. In the 1920s a crime prevention bureau addressed the needs of juvenile delinquents, and that morphed into an effort to enroll 5,000 delinquents in the first Police Athletic League in 1936.
Youth Development Philosophy
Positive engagement is the operating principle of the Police Athletic League. The organization seeks to reduce juvenile crime and violence through promoting relationships among “kids, cops, and community.”
A Department of Justice newsletter urged police departments to work on public relations through improved communication, transparency, and community-relations organizations such as the Police Athletic League. Among the benefits cited were:
Putting a positive face on the police department rather than simply showing up in response to negative situations like crime;
Fostering relationships within the community that can result in tips about criminal activity;
Providing officers opportunities for professional development in community relations;
Establishing rapport with youth that results in fewer negative interactions, and
Collaborating with community groups on projects that are not directly related to crime.
The Police Athletic League is similar to programs like Youth Corps, D.A.R.E., and Explorer Scouts offered in many cities. Some, such as D.A.R.E., include in-school curriculum about life choices including staying away from drugs. All seek to build bridges between police and communities they serve in order to facilitate communication and positive relationships.
These organizations are similar in that they provide activities to youth ages 14-20 that include team sports, book clubs, and opportunities to witness police work behind the scenes, to learn more about the processes of law enforcement, and at times to participate in things such as missing persons searches and community events. Most match officers and at-risk youth in mentorship-type relationships. In New York City and other urban areas the programs may extend to employment opportunities as well.
Most Police Athletic Leagues are located in large cities, as they require a significant investment of time to maintain and run, an asset that is easier to find in larger police departments. New York City’s PAL organization is one of the most extensive, offering:
classes in test preparation, financial literacy, and life skills;
pregnancy prevention workshops;
trips to amusement parks and professional sporting events;
a summer camp-like program that entertains as many as 4,000 children;
intramural teams, and
The Youth Link program specifically addresses juveniles vulnerable to entering a life of crime by identifying those in the juvenile justice system and on probation.
Other cities that offer PAL programs include Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Petersburg, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. While rare, the Howell, New Jersey, arm of the organization even offers a preschool program and a theatre arts program. The national headquarters of the Police Athletic League offers a search function to find local chapters.
The organization has chapters scattered across the country according to the need and funding availability in each community. Interestingly Chicago, which has long battled crime and inner city violence, does not have a Police Athletic League presence. Recent news reports show officers from the city neighborhoods of Englewood and Lawndale starting a baseball league for kids, but nothing as extensive as the network of programs that departments such as New York City’s – and even Peoria’s -- offer through PAL.
An audit of the San Jose, California Police Athletic League underscored some challenges facing cities that seek the benefits of such programs, including staffing by police who are not trained program administrators, as well as the difficulty of freeing up police officers to attend youth programs. In addition, San Jose’s city government was warned that the Police Athletic League’s delay in filing tax documents, cash handling, and donation tracking procedures were potential liabilities for the city. The audit’s findings recommended that the city separate the Police Athletic League into a freestanding nonprofit similar to New York’s.
To start a local chapter of the Police Athletic League, contact the organization’s national headquarters. To enroll a child who may benefit, contact your local police department and inquire. Those who would like to volunteer time and skills from teaching a class to coaching a team to balancing the books or handling sports registrations, contact the PAL chapter nearby. Donations are also accepted. Police may accept some donations of sports equipment that support programs as well.