By Benjamin Tyson, Ph.D., Dept. of Communication, Central Connecticut State Univ.; Shamir Ratansi, Ph.D., Dept. of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Connecticut State Univ.; Stephanie Sfiridis, graduate student, Central Connecticut State Univ.; Aileen Keays, Research Specialist, Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, Central Connecticut State Univ.; and Lyndsay Ruffolo, Research Specialist, Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, Central Connecticut State Univ., New Britain, CT
any studies show a correlation between school dropout rates and delinquency. Nearly one-third of first-year U.S. high school students and one-half of African American and Hispanic students do not earn their diplomas on time. Students of lower socioeconomic status who reside in urban school districts are approximately 20 percent more likely to drop out of high school than students in suburban schools. High school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, receive public assistance, and become teenage parents, compared to those who graduate high school.1
Additionally, high school dropouts are more likely to be involved in criminal behavior. A study by Dr. Caroline Harlow for the U.S. Department of Justice shows that roughly 68 percent of state prison inmates did not obtain a high school degree.2 These studies do not show that dropping out of school causes delinquency; however, they do display a link between youth that have dropped out of school and criminal acts.
Studies show that youths who are bonded to conventional social activities, including social institutions such as family and school, are less likely to commit delinquent acts.3 The Police Athletic League (PAL) program provides these individuals with a constructive way to spend their free time. Through PAL programs, youths engage in social activities that encourage education and physical activity. Involvement in these activities leads to a stronger respect for social norms that encourage youths to stay in school and not commit delinquent acts.
The History of PAL
Former New York City Police Commissioner Arthur Woods introduced an early version of PAL in 1914 when he used his officers to create a program designed to give children an alternative to playing in the streets—an activity that Woods believed would lead to a delinquent lifestyle. He converted 29 blocks of vacant lots into playgrounds and banned traffic from these areas in the afternoons. The idea gained popularity and 75 new “playstreets” were added during the 1920s. Later that decade, the New York City Police Department organized a baseball league for young boys in the city. The Twilight Athletic League helped form the framework for PAL programs in their modern form.
The New York PAL program quickly expanded to include other sports such as football, boxing, and women’s basketball. The program’s popularity grew as legendary baseball great Babe Ruth joined the PAL steering committee and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended a game. Radio stations broadcasted weekly educational programs featuring PAL members and celebrity endorsements became plentiful. PAL showcased a display at the 1939 World’s Fair and, eventually, the New York City Board of Education elected to cooperate with PAL to address truancy issues.
PAL radio programs won two Freedom Foundation awards for community service and received a gold medal from the foundation for radio and television work with young children. Furthermore, PAL members began competing in high-level competitions and participating in other PAL offerings, such as career guidance and treatment plans for troubled youths. Over the course of two decades, the New York PAL program expanded to manage 69 indoor centers and 70,000 members. By the 1940s and 1950s, other police departments were eager to learn how they could replicate the city’s successful PAL program.
Today, PAL is a national organization with more than 400 chapters operated in individual communities by local police departments and volunteers. These chapters are found in more than 700 cities, utilize 1,700 facilities, and involve more than two million youths in athletic, recreational, and educational activities. The driving force behind PAL is the belief that forming bonds between youths and police officers will lead to a strong moral character throughout life; that is, if adolescents respect officers on the playing field or in the classroom, they are more apt to respect the laws that those officers are charged with enforcing.
PAL in Waterbury, Connecticut
The Waterbury Police Athletic League formed in October 1966 under the direction of officers John Andrews, Charles Bordner, William Knuchel, and Frank Shepis and thanks to a $1,500 donation from the Police Mutual Aid Fund. The Waterbury PAL’s early primary function was to form a marching band, in addition to facilitating some athletic events. The Waterbury PAL marching band traveled and competed against other bands in a tristate area and helped membership grow to 700 youth.
By the 1980s, Waterbury PAL had transitioned from its ceremonial roots to a competitive athletic program. Baseball was the primary focus, but other sports such as boxing and basketball also were offered. But the program’s success was short lived—during the late 1990s, financial problems forced PAL funding to be cut severely, and, by 2001, the City of Waterbury was bankrupt and PAL membership had plummeted to just 70 members.
The year 2003 marked a significant change for the Waterbury PAL. Acting Police Chief Neil O’Leary and Lieutenant Mike Gugliotti sought out to revive PAL by identifying three areas of concern:
- There were only 70 members and most of these children were competitive athletes who were recruited to PAL for their sports skills.
- Latinos dominated PAL membership, although that demographic was not representative of the community as a whole.
- PAL offered only sports, primarily baseball.
Chief O’Leary and Lieutenant Gugliotti addressed these issues while reorganizing the PAL program by, for example, focusing their efforts on children who normally would not try out for a sports team—children who could “easily fall through the cracks,” according to Chief O’Leary. Athletes already had self-confidence; it was the non-athletes he was worried about—those with no structure in their lives and little confidence. The officers renamed PAL, originally the Police Athletic League, the Police Activity League to signify the broadening scope of its mission. The new philosophy of PAL put education, community, and athletics on an equal level.
Recruitment began in the classroom. Officers asked teachers to identify “at risk” children in their classrooms and encourage them to join the PAL program. Each child received a police officer as a mentor. By 2005, the program had expanded to serve approximately 1,700 children.
PAL requires that youths participate in both community-sponsored events and educational programs, including computer safety; nutrition; and drug, gang, and peer-pressure awareness. During this expansion, PAL also launched its payroll deduction campaign for police officers. Of the 300 sworn officers and 70 civilian officers, 97 percent elected to contribute to the program. One year later, this campaign expanded to include the Board of Education; 500 teachers chose to take the payroll deduction.
Through 2005, PAL borrowed school gymnasiums and athletic fields for events as needed. In 2006, the program acquired Saint Lucy’s school and recreation center in Waterbury, through funds raised during a capital campaign. By February 2007, the program had raised over $800,000 from individual and corporate donations. Volunteers and police officers spent several months renovating the two buildings, and more than 40 educators developed a new curriculum and learning modules for the program’s now 2,900 youthful participants.
PAL continues to expand its impact on the community. For example, volunteers now work with the Special Olympics organization to pair PAL children as mentors with Special Olympics youths. Volunteer educators supervise Homework Haven, an after-school homework assistance program, and facilitate the Accuplacer program for high school students preparing for SAT exams and for college. A partnership with the local health department teaches youths about safety and wellness. Literacy programs promote reading for all age and skill levels, and gatherings to benefit less-fortunate and homeless community members occur frequently.
- Findings from Institutional Records suggest that PAL is targeting the right youths—individuals with slightly higher-than-normal arrest rates.
- Supporters of the program, including the chief of police, PAL supervisors and coordinators, volunteers, and local program sponsors, maintain a strong commitment to its success.
- Respondents agree that the PAL program creates positive changes in the community and that these changes are sustainable and create an atmosphere less conducive to juvenile crime.
- Nearly all respondents believe that PAL activities are offered at the right place, at the right time, and for the right duration and that the instructors, volunteers, facilities, and materials are beneficial.
- Sports programs, especially baseball, softball, and basketball, are the most popular programs, but a full array of other types of programs and events, including arts, academics, skillbuilding programs for youths, and community celebrations for families, also are offered.
- Nearly all respondents believe that the PAL program is under-resourced; there are approximately 2,800 youths in PAL with just five officers dedicated to their supervision. Respondents identify the most critical limiting factor as volunteer assistance.
- Several respondents suggest that the PAL program needs improved communication with parents.
- Several respondents suggest that refereeing is not always good and that coaches should be better trained.
- Respondents believe that it would be beneficial to conduct PAL programs at additional schools in the city, especially at those far from the PAL Learning Center.
- The following PAL activity ideas garnered support from respondents.
- A greater variety of educational and vocational programs for youths not interested in sports
- More activities for 15 to 18 year-olds
- More Special Olympic activities
- More basketball for younger youth
- More activities for girls, such as volleyball, tennis, art programs, and cooking classes
- More activities during the summer and on weekends
- A swimming program
The research project was conducted for the Waterbury PAL by the Institute for the Study of Crime and Justice at Central Connecticut State University between March and June 2009. Researchers used the following methods to assess satisfaction with the program, facilitating factors and barriers, perceived benefits, perceived problems, and ideas for improvement.
Part 1: Two focus groups with (a) 10 PAL staff (police); and (b) 12 PAL program teachers
Part 2: Ten, one-hour personal interviews with students enrolled in PAL
Part 3: Ten, one-hour personal interviews with parent/guardian of students from Part 2
Part 4: A self-administered survey of 110 youths (ages 10–18) enrolled in PAL
Part 5: A self-administered survey of 121 parent/guardian of youths enrolled in PAL
Part 6: Analysis of police and school data sources (ages 5–18) (2007-2008) to compare 1,569 students enrolled in PAL with 2,000 students not enrolled in PAL (Evaluation variables included truancy, grades, disciplinary infractions, contacts with police, and arrest rates.)
- The PAL program helps to occupy youths with structured activities, giving them less idle time to get into trouble.
- The PAL program provides youths with a sense of belonging.
- The PAL program provides a context in which youths are held accountable for the consequences of their actions.
- The PAL program allows youths to see police officers in a new light—not as adversaries, but as positive role models.
- The PAL program improves academic performance by instilling a sense of personal responsibility.
- The PAL program encourages academic excellence by requiring youths to maintain good grades to participate in PAL sports.
- Most PAL youths intend to go to college.
- The PAL program improves personal life.
A significant number of PAL youths do the following:
- Have improved their grades since joining PAL
- Go to school more often since joining PAL
- Have improved their homework performance since joining PAL
- Have better communication skills since joining PAL
- Have more self-discipline since joining PAL
- Have better interpersonal relationships since joining PAL
- Have better physical health since joining PAL
- Have better team work and sportsmanship skills since joining PAL
- Spend more time exercising since joining PAL
- Spend less time watching television and playing computer games since joining PAL
The PAL program decreases the following:
- Instances of trouble with other youths
- Instances of trouble at home
- Instances of trouble in school
- Instances of trouble with police ?
1Gary Sweeten, Shawn Bushway, and Raymond Paternoster, “Does Dropping Out of School Mean Dropping Into Delinquency?” in Criminology 47, no.1 (February 2009): 47, 49-50.
2Caroline Wolf Harlow, “Education and Correctional Populations,” Special Report, NCJ 195670 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, January 2003): 1, http://www.policyalmanac.org/crime/archive/education_prisons.pdf (accessed March 9, 2010).
3Thomas Winfrey and Howard Abadinsky, Understanding Crime: Theory and Practice (Belmont, Calif.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003).
Please cite as:
Benjamin Tyson, Shamir Ratansi, Stephanie Sfiridis, Aileen Keays, and Lyndsay Ruffolo, "An Evaluation of the Waterbury Police Activity League," The Police Chief 77 (April 2010): 132–135,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2057&issue_id=42010 (insert access date).