By Briana D’Andrea
After a heated debate, the Police Athletic League boxing program in Royal Palm Beach will live on, with one major change — there will no longer be a deputy assigned to the job.
The Royal Palm Beach Village Council ratified modifications to the village’s contract with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, Sept. 18. The changes were approved on a 3-1 vote with Councilman Richard Valuntas dissenting and Mayor Matty Mattioli absent.
“The significant change in this agreement is the PAL officer position being changed to a part-time recreation specialist position,” Village Manager Ray Liggins said.
The council initially had postponed a decision in August to consider whether to continue the village-sponsored program, end it or to hand it over to the PBSO to run as a part-time program.
Initially, PBSO officials proposed replacing the PAL program officer with a detective, which would have ended the program but helped to alleviate an uptick in white-collar crime in the area.
However, a compromise will keep the program open part time.
“We think that we can continue the program pretty much as we have it, with different personnel, keeping it open 20 hours a week from the key times in the afternoon to the times at night,” Liggins said.
With help from PBSO Capt. Paul Miles, Liggins researched the amount of time the boxing facilities were used over the course of a year. Details are being worked out, but the idea is to keep it open five days a week, four hours a day.
“I feel we’ve worked out a pretty good arrangement,” Liggins said. “It’s still being run through the sheriff’s office through our contract. They’ll still be able to leverage volunteers like they have in the past — and we get to keep the detective that the captain thinks will be useful. I think holding off and coming back with this is a win-win for everybody.”
Councilman Fred Pinto agreed. “We are maintaining the program, and I think it’s a good thing,” he said.
But Valuntas wasn’t happy with the idea of removing the deputy, and neither were the 30 adults and teenagers who attended the meeting in support of the program as it currently exists.
“I believe the program should carry on, as it is, in its current state, and it should be addressed again when the contract comes up,” Valuntas said. “This is definitely a better proposal than what was set last time, but I think it does take a part of the program away, which is young, at-risk and impressionable youth having a positive impact with law enforcement.”
Bill Connors, head coach for the PAL program for the past 14 years and a retired Hialeah police officer, said he was grateful for the program’s continuation. “Over the years, we’ve had quite a bit of success,” he said. “Our thing has always been family, school and then boxing. So thank you.”
One concern had been that not enough Royal Palm Beach residents participate in the long-running program.
“We look at what we are getting for our money,” Swift said at the August meeting. “Currently, in this particular contract for the PAL program, there’s $120,000 to run the program. When you break that down, I think there’s 33 people from the village who use that program. You divide that by $120,000, and that’s $3,600 per child.”
Councilman Jeff Hmara agreed that the program needs more participants. “The challenge to you all is to bring your friends,” he said. “I would say it’s fairly underutilized. My impression is that’s a darn good program — no doubt about it — but I’d love to see more of you involved.”
Swift agreed. “Even with the part-time person, this is still the most expensive program that we operate in the village,” he said. “I think we will need to have a way to get an accurate count of the actual participants on a monthly basis.”
Sean Fitzpatrick, a 27-year resident, said that there was a 41 percent increase in activity of the program that helps expose at-risk youth to positive law enforcement, according to a 2013-14 village performance report. Fitzpatrick said he wants to see the program continue as it stands. “I am for it being with the deputy,” he said.
Thomas Williams, who has volunteered for the boxing program for about 14 years, has also seen it grow. “Even if we touched one life, it means something. So, we have to push to keep it going. Numbers don’t win the award; intelligence wins the award,” he said.
Program participant Jayla Coombs said the boxing program changed her life. “I support this program with the deputy because I’ve never felt more comfortable with a deputy than I have here,” she said. “It has made me closer to people in the community and officers, and it has made me closer to my parents, because I have something to tell them about when I come home from school.”
The public’s support for keeping a deputy attached to the program wasn’t enough to sway the council’s decision, although Swift complimented the attendees.
“I’m very impressed by the young men and ladies. You gave me a different perspective,” he said. “I struggle with the original cost of the program, and I see it as unsustainable. I think the village manager trying to bring the program back is sustainable. I’m supporting the manager’s proposal.”
Valuntas was also concerned that without the PAL deputy, there wouldn’t be a liaison between Royal Palm Beach High School and the PBSO.
“If we have kids who are in the schools involved in the program with the law enforcement officers — that’s an invaluable resource,” he said. “I think it’s a different level when you have a program specialist instead of a sworn law enforcement officer.”
Miles, who started the liaison program more than a year ago, said that program will not go away. “If that position is not going to go to the school, I will have somebody going to the school, as long as we’re running the PAL program,” he said.
Pinto was concerned with another issue. “It has more to do with giving our law enforcement leader the resources he needs to stem white-collar crime,” he said. “We need to have detectives working on a full-time basis… That’s the number we should be concerned with.”
The PBSO District 9 substation in Royal Palm Beach has one of the smallest detective bureaus, Miles said.
“We cannot assign every case to [just] two detectives… I cannot assign 200 more cases to the two detectives I have in there; it’s just not feasible,” Miles said.
Liggins cited statistics showing that a third detective is needed. “The number of cases in 2012 was 367, assigned to two deputies; in 2013, there were 572 cases assigned with the use of the temporary duty officer,” he said. “I think from going from 367 in 2012 to 572 in 2013 and then 250 halfway through this year — the demand is there.”
The council will have to revisit this issue again when the PBSO contract is up in two years.