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The City Journals

Police PAL: Officers Forge Bond with Youth

Aug 30, 2016 04:09PM ● By Travis Barton

Leonardo Sanchez Salazar (right) is named winner after his boxing match at the Pete Suazo Boxing Invitational on Aug. 19. The event was presented by the South Salt Lake Police Activities League at the Central Park Community Center. –Travis Barton

In a world where the relationship between law enforcement and community constantly borders on chaotic, a program in South Salt Lake has helped achieve harmony.
The South Salt Lake Police Department runs a program called the Police Athletics/Activities League (PAL) where officers and youth interact through various athletic endeavors and after-school activities.
“The program as a whole, is awesome I can’t say enough about it…we’ve won awards from the FBI as one of the best after-school programs in the country,” Officer Jerry Silva, PAL Director, said.
PAL runs programs such as flag football, baseball, street hockey, mentoring and boxing—the highlight of the program—in an effort to create trust and understanding as well as connect youth to strong and positive role models.
Leonardo Sanchez Salazar, 13, has been with the PAL program for three years.
“[The police officers] have helped me so much, they really have. At first I just thought they went out and caught bad guys, but they help little young people and that’s good for me,” Salazar said.
Silva has been with the program since its inception. Former SSL officer Robin Wilkins founded the program, a nationwide undertaking, in 1998. After a few years the program started to taper off with the city government’s focus directed elsewhere. Silva said the program rebooted around 2007 and with the creation of the community center building in 2010, has continued to flourish.
The center is one of 14 different outreach centers throughout the city as part of the after-school Promise program, something the city has been recognized nationally for.
“It’s very unique, [the city] did research, went to New York City, all over, to figure out the best way to structure this program the right way for our community,” Silva said. “We’re giving kids opportunities that they would’ve never had if it wasn’t for the PAL program and Promise.”
PAL falls under the umbrella of the Promise program. The after-school efforts, which include tutoring and mentoring from law enforcement and community partners, helps keep kids focused and preoccupied during those afternoon hours. Silva said they have about 50 to 60 kids attend every day.
“I have people to help me here [with homework] and everyone here is just so nice,” Salazar said.
Since 2007 when the program rebooted, Silva said the city’s juvenile crime rate between 3 and 7 p.m. has dropped 60 percent.
“Keeping kids motivated and active during those latchkey hours, you’re going to do some good and that’s what we’ve done,” Silva said.  
Kids are regularly sent to youth conferences in California or boxing matches around the country. One boxer went to the Junior Olympics in Dallas while others participated in the Ringside World Championships in Kansas City where Salazar won in his weight class.
“You just gotta give kids [positive] opportunities and choices and they’re going to realize they have potential,” Silva said.
Besides Kansas City, Salazar also boxed in California, something he said he never imagined.
“I never thought that I would go to Kansas City or Oxnard, [Calif.], maybe when I was older, I thought I was just going to stay in Utah the whole time. I’m proud that I went to other places,” Salazar said.
Building bonds through the PAL program, Silva said, has improved relations between law enforcement and the community.
“Anytime a kid or a family recognize that a police officer is a person too, you take those barriers down,” Silva said.
Silva said a trust has been built where kids and parents are contacting them when issues arise.
With the tragic events of recent months hovering over law enforcement, Silva said there will always be people who speak ill of law enforcement, but his community experience has been predominantly positive.
“I’ve probably seen more support for police officers in our community than I’ve ever seen,” Silva said.
Salazar said he used to think cops were just mean to other people, but the program has changed that.
“I just thought they were these guys that were mean to other people, like ‘you mean cops,’ but when I met [Officer] Jerry [Silva] he was nice, nice to everyone. Any police officer who comes is just friendly,” Salazar said.
Boxing is the popular aspect of the program. PAL presented the Pete Suazo Boxing Invitational at the Central Park Community Center on Aug. 19 and 20. Former Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield visited the boxing program last year.
Silva said they are always looking to improve the program. Discussions have been held to partner with the University of Utah STEM program to educate kids on the physiology of their boxing.
Boxing equipment, along with everything else in the program, is community donated.
Silva said South Salt Lake is such a unique community that he would like to see more people volunteering whether it’s as a reading buddy or just an hour a week.
“Getting more people to volunteer at these centers would be the best thing to do,” Silva said.
Salazar said the program has inspired him to assist young kids when he’s older.
“When I’m old enough, I’d like to give back to the program and help other kids,” Salazar said. “I want to help other people.”