Police Activities League Keeps Building Bridges Between Youth and Officers Virtually

Despite Financial Setbacks Caused by COVID-19, PAL Continues to Support Students Online

Executive Director Michelle Meyering, PAL student and scholarship recipient Lesly Abrego, SBPD and PAL Officer Adrian Gutierrez, and Program Director Judith Lugo | Credit: Courtesy

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The Santa Barbara chapter of the Police Activities League’s (PAL) mission is to build positive mentoring relationships with teens,  the S.B. Police Department, and the community through its many programs. As Santa Barbara and the rest of the nation focused on relations between police and people of color, while struggling with the pandemic, Executive Director Michelle Meyering believes PAL’s services are more vital now than ever.  

PAL has adeptly adopted its services to COVID times. Staff regularly checks in with the families whose kids participate in their programs, dropping off meals and school supplies where needed. After-school programming, which had taken place at its Twelve35 Teen Center on Chapala, moved online. During the school year, about 70 students participated each week in tutoring sessions, leadership workshops, social-emotional support groups, and college readiness programs. Though some activities slowed in the summer, everything will ramp up again when classes resume this fall. 

The informal interaction between officers and students is a critical part of PAL. In recent years, the S.B. Police Department has dedicated about 70 work hours per week, many in PAL’s Explorer Post program,  where officers teach students about police work, emphasizing character training and leadership skills. And officers spend many more off-duty hours as well. 

Lt. Aaron Baker, who oversees SBPD’s participation, believes one of the most important actions of PAL is that  breaks down walls between the kids and officers, allowing them get to know one another outside the enforcement context. Both groups benefit. Over a game of pool, he noted, kids see how police officers are normal people, and officers see how great the kids are.  

“Sometimes I feel like I’m robbing them,” Baker said, “that I’m taking more than I’m giving” because of how good he feels to be around the kids and how good it feels to see the kids go on to become police officers here and in other jurisdictions. 

PAL Program Manager Judith Lugo agrees that having great officers show up at PAL out of uniform, meeting students on a human-to-human basis, is invaluable. Except for in the Explorer Post, PAL students call officers by their first name, and eventually students accept that these officers are friends, people they can turn to when they need help.  

When the pandemic forced the schools to shut down, stress and economic challenges mounted for the students and their families, many of whom live at or below the poverty level. Meyering worries that without the support PAL offers, students will suffer in many ways, including with mental health issues. 

Lugo, whom Meyering called “the heart and soul of PAL,” shared how especially in the past few months, PAL has been a 24/7 lifeline to students and their families. When the families reach out to her seeking help, Lugo has been able to put them in touch with police officers, oftentimes ones the families know from PAL and therefore trust.  

Recently, a parent called about a child’s suicide attempt and Lugo convinced her to let her call the police, provided it was Officer Adrian Gutierrez, who has worked with PAL students for years. The parent was very clear that “Adrian” was the only acceptable officer. Lugo reached Gutierrez, who was able to intervene. Lugo notes that for PAL, it’s not just a matter of the initial police intervention, but rather that PAL also collaborates with other organizations and entities — schools, CALM, Family Service Agency — to ensure the welfare of the students after the initial call.

Another parent alerted Lugo to a video on social media of a girl being attacked by boys, and while the parent did not know those involved, she was very concerned about the effect on children viewing it. Lugo assisted the parent in reporting the video and put together resources, including a Zoom session, to support students who had viewed it. 

PAL officers support the students in a variety of ways.  Recently, on a Zoom call, a PAL student shared how she received a Westmont scholarship but was feeling insecure about taking such a challenge. A PAL officer who had developed a rapport with the student was able to jump right in and convince her she had the ability to succeed. She will now attend Westmont.

Recently, students have reached out to PAL officers about videos they have seen of officers not following protocol and seemingly acting in a racist manner. Frank conversations have ensued, with officers addressing students’ concerns.  PAL students have participated in recent protests, and PAL officers have commended them for expressing their feelings in a peaceful, positive manner.

The officer ranks at SBPD are 59 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, 2 percent black, and 12 percent other. PAL serves mostly Latino students and a small number of black students. Officers at PAL are a mix of white and Hispanic people. 

With COVID taking away much of the normal high school graduation experience, Baker organized Adopt-a-Senior Campaign. By passing around an envelope at the police station, he raised $1,000, which Lugo used to create gift baskets tailored to the 13 PAL students graduating this year. Baker and other officers, along with Lugo and her staff, delivered the baskets to each student. To see the strong connection between students and Lugo and her staff made these moments even sweeter for Baker. Two seniors will be entering the military, and the other 11 will be attending college.

The annual Maribel Franco Memorial Scholarship, which provides scholarships to PAL participants and alumni, this year awarded $30,000 to 21 students. Though the spring fundraiser, a big revenue source, had to be canceled, PAL has been able to continue allocating camp scholarships, though this year many of the camps were virtual.  It is still hoping to hold its annual Golf Tournament on September 25. 

Whether the Teen Center will be able to reopen this fall is still unknown — the small size of the facility means a limited number of students can safely be served with social-distancing protocols, but if it remains closed, robust virtual programming will resume with the start of classes.

PAL is funded entirely by community donations and grants. For more info or to make a donation, go to sbpal.org.

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