Playing basketball with police officers is one of Tawrence Walton’s fondest memories from growing up in Englewood: “I always saw the officers as being part of the community — not just chasing bad guys, but being somebody you could relate with. If anything ever came about that you needed, you knew they were there to serve and protect.”
Still a South Sider, Walton now serves, protects, mentors, and much more as the University of Chicago Police Department officer assigned to the UCPD chapter of the Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL) at the South Side YMCA. A national program, PAL aims to reduce juvenile crime and violence by building trusting relationships among kids, officers, and communities, and by providing role models who encourage young people to make good choices and reject crime and violence.
Encouraging youth to see police officers differently
Walton began his career running community after-school programs at a nonprofit. He joined UCPD in 2013, serving on patrol and as a community relations officer. Five years later, his expertise in policing and youth programming came together in UCPD PAL, which is his full-time assignment.
Guided by the national PAL curriculum, Walton provides academic support and homework help; teaches life skills both tangible (cooking and budgeting) and intangible (perseverance and self-esteem); leads arts activities and sports; and supervises service projects like making food for families at the Ronald McDonald House near Comer Children’s Hospital.
UCPD PAL began as a collaboration with Bright Star Community Outreach, a longtime partner in the University’s violence prevention work, at the Carter G. Woodson middle school campus of the UChicago Charter School. When the Woodson campus closed in 2019, PAL moved to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club (HPNC), where Executive Director Angela Habr says Walton had a big impact.
“The goal is to mend the relationship between young people and law enforcement, transforming it so it can become one of trust rather than suspicion and fear,” she explains.
“Because Officer Walton is who he is — bubbly and bright and funny — he showed the kids how to see police officers differently, as human beings with families and senses of humor.” (You can hear Walton’s infectious laugh and see some of his dance moves in a TikTok video he made with PAL participants.)
To broaden its reach, in the spring of 2021 PAL moved to the South Side YMCA, where Walton spends four full days each week. Before the move, UCPD PAL had reached a total of 120 youth in the three years since its launch. Today, Walton interacts daily with about 150 kids who are enrolled in the Y’s summer programs; a smaller group will be part of PAL once the school year starts.
The program is a perfect fit for the Y’s mission, according to Kenne’quia Howell, the South Side YMCA’s executive director, who sits on UCPD’s PAL Advisory Board. “It’s a very purpose-driven partnership with the goal of benefiting the whole community,” she says.
“One of the roles we play is to bridge gaps and divides within the community, and we’ve talked often with Officer Walton and his commander about there not being great relations between the African American community and the police — on both ends. We take a community-minded approach to wellness, and Officer Walton and UCPD take the same approach. They want to create change, and that’s our mission, too.”
Data show that the UCPD PAL program is effective at changing attitudes. In a recent survey, the percentage of participants reporting that they have respect for law enforcement increased from 53% before the program to 72% afterward.
The percentage of participants understanding the negative effects of drug use and gang involvement also increased (60% before, 82% after), as did the percentage of those who feel that they have social support available to them (58% before, 79% after). For its impact, UCPD PAL was honored with the 2019 Award for Innovations in Community-Oriented Policing from the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.
“A kid from the same place they’re from”
Carol Butcher’s granddaughter Carliyah, now age 12, took part in PAL at HPNC; Butcher, who is Carliyah’s guardian, says that “Officer Walton is beyond Officer Friendly — he’s Officer Extraordinary!” He was a mentor and confidant to Carliyah, whose father was incarcerated until earlier this year, encouraging her about schoolwork and offering gentle reminders on topics like following COVID-19 safety rules.
Butcher says that Walton builds positive relationships with the entire community. “He was so outgoing whenever parents came through to pick up their kids ... he’s taking the stereotype of officers and showing another view of them. The uniform asks for respect, but in order to get respect, you have to give it — and his attitude and behavior show it.”
Tough conversations about law enforcement and the criminal justice system are part of the job, Walton says, recalling that PAL participants had a lot of questions about the Laquan McDonald case when the former CPD officer who killed McDonald was sentenced. And he can relate to those who have experienced the system and been affected by violence: His own 13-year-old stepbrother was shot and killed in Englewood in 2019.
“Some kids are pretty reserved at first, but as we get to know each other, those walls come down,” Walton says. “They know I’m a kid from the same place they’re from, not just a face showing up here. And every kid in the program has a story.” Howell agrees: “Not only does Officer Walton look like our youth, he also comes from the community and understands the unique things they face.”
Officers from UCPD’s community relations unit regularly come by the Y to engage with the PAL participants and help Walton run activities. They also support other UCPD community initiatives that include a Youth Explorers chapter for high school students interested in law enforcement careers, a citizenship and legal literacy program for teens, an internship for college students, a youth basketball tournament, and frequent community events.
Walton says that all of these initiatives support officers, too, by strengthening community members’ trust in and cooperation with the department. “Often people only see one side of law enforcement, but with PAL we get the chance to counter some of those narratives,” Walton said. “The community is the police, and the police is the community. That needs to be felt on every level.”