Breaking the ‘bad guy’ image | SteamboatToday.com

Breaking the ‘bad guy’ image

PAL program helps students see police officers as mentors, friends

Susan Cunningham

When Oak Creek police Officer Felipe Nardo was growing up in a poor part of Honolulu, there weren’t too many things to do.

He didn’t have enough money to afford equipment and fees for organized athletic programs.

But he could get involved in PAL, the Police Activities League, where sports such as flag football and soccer were accessible to Nardo. Without PAL, Nardo said he could have ended up getting into trouble.

“A lot of my friends either did (PAL) or ended up in jail,” Nardo said.

PAL didn’t just keep Nardo and his friends busy. It also gave them a new perspective on police officers, who coached some of the teams and were involved in the program.

Instead of being the “bad guys,” police officers were “someone to look up to,” Nardo said.

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Now, Nardo and Oak Creek Police Chief Tim Willert are working to bring PAL to the South Routt community.

Willert started the PAL program in Fountain before coming to Oak Creek. In Fountain, he started the program with 12 children. By the end of the first year, there were more than 100 active participants.

Through the program, students from kindergarten to 12th grade can learn sports and participate in other activities, with the help of police officers. Staying busy helps keep the students out of trouble, Willert said.

“They’re good kids. They just get bored, and if they’re bored, they’re going to find a way to become unbored, and it’s typically not in a productive way,” Willert said.

“I believe if you give them good, positive interaction with the police, we’ll be able to steer them in a direction where they’ll respect the officers and the law as opposed to wanting to break the law.”

To be part of PAL, a national organization, children and teenagers have to read and sign a code of conduct that requires them to respect themselves, other people and their property, laws and police officers. If they don’t follow the code, they can get a time-out from an activity or be suspended from the program for a period of time, Willert said.

Police officers attend every activity sponsored by the program that they can, Willert said.

Officers show up to the activities in their uniforms, so participants can begin to associate police officers with people who are approachable. There’s something about a police officer running around a field, coaching children to sprint faster or play tough defense that gives children a new perspective on police officers.

Through PAL, Willert said he hopes to live up to the “hero” image that police officers traditionally have had.

“That’s an image we have to portray,” he said. “They see that, for one, we’re not the bad guy and we’re out there to help them. And that we play by rules.

“I’ve always liked my job for the positive reasons. We have a job to do — we have arrests we have to make and we do the negative contacts, but it’s more rewarding to reach out to a kid and know you’ve made a difference in his life or her life.”

The South Routt PAL program is still in its infancy. A board of directors, which includes three students who can offer ideas and input, has been set up, and the group is applying for nonprofit status and to be a chapter of the national organization.

This fall, Willert said the group hopes to offer flag football and cheerleading, as well as have a Haunted House in late October and a Halloween dance.

The program could offer volunteer-run activities. In Fountain, PAL offered horseback riding, flag football, indoor and outdoor soccer, basketball, cheerleading, swimming and trips to baseball games and amusement parks.

Because of the need for volunteers, Willert said parents play a big part in the program. A background check is run on volunteers, part of ensuring the program is safe for children, he said.

Through PAL, Willert said he hopes to reach every child in the South Routt area.

“I’m sure there are several right now who are hanging out at the park who we haven’t reached out to, who don’t have an activity to do,” he said.

The program should provide those kids a range of things to do. And then comes one of the best parts for Willert and Nardo: watching the participants stay involved and stay out of trouble.

“There’s no better feeling than to have some kid come up and give you a hug and thank you for what you’re doing for them,” Willert said.