By Mark Naison
Call me sentimental, but I long for the days when police officers would serve as volunteer coaches and community workers in poor and working class neighborhoods and get to know the young people there in a different capacity than as would be law breakers and “perps.” A great organization in NY, the Police Athletic League ( PAL), arose at the turn of the 20th Century to encourage that development.
The PAL was started because in NY’s immigrant neighborhoods at the turn of the 20 century, families were under so much strain that they had little opportunity to guide and mentor young people, which made young men in particular prime recruits for organized crime and the underground economy. Since today’s economy, with its great polarities in wealth, bears so much resemblance to that of the late 19th and early 20th Century, we may be seeing similar strains on families that leave many young people virtually raising themselves. And while no program is a panacea, the PAL had enough success in my formative years to make it worth reviving at a time of extreme police/community polarization. Or at least worth discussing as something which might ease the tensions.
I also saw it first hand in a Brooklyn sports organization I once worked in during the 80’s and 90’s: the 78th Precinct Youth Council. When officials of the group asked me to take over a basketball league it sponsored which was plagued with fights and near riots, the coaches and referees I recruited to help me run it included several police officers, who were incredibly devoted to the young people in the league and helped turn it from a trouble spot into a success.
I think there is a lesson here that has been forgotten in our obsession with subjecting public service occupations to “data driven management.” One great way to have police be more responsive and caring and knowledgeable in communities they patrol is to have them involved with neighborhood youth off the job. In that capacity, I would love to see the PAL revived and revitalized so that young people will see police officers as coaches and mentors, as well as people dispatched with orders from afar to enforce the law.