A PAL Worth Having: One Police Officer Uses his Experiences to Kindle Ties with City Youth

Erie police Sgt. Tom Lenox ’98 remembers growing up as an inner-city kid in Johnstown, Pa.

“I wasn’t the smartest kid, grew up a hard life,” he said.

It made coming into the Gannon community a bit of a challenge as an 18-year-old freshman.

Head men’s wrestling coach Donald Henry recalls coaching Lenox on the team those first years. “Bringing a city kid into the Gannon community, it was a little bit of a struggle because of different environments, different personalities,” he said.

PAL Event

View a video about the PAL Summer Camp.

But Henry and others at the university took a chance on the young teen, and now Lenox is returning the favor to the youth of Erie City.

This summer, 207 students from six Erie Public schools attended the Police Athletic League Summer Camp, an event spearheaded by Lenox in partnership with the Erie Bureau of Police and hosted by Gannon University. The program brings Erie City youth together with local law enforcement officers to establish positive relationships.

Lenox re-launched the Erie PAL program in 2016 following a 40-year hiatus. A handful of officers participated in the after-school program at Pfeifer Burleigh as coaches, mentors and teachers. But enormous strides have been made since then.

Now dozens of officers from several law enforcement agencies are working with children from six Erie elementary schools, Lenox said. The league’s camp grew from 58 student attendees in 2017 to more than 200 at its third camp this summer.

“You see the tone and the tension and stress levels of some of the things we’re out here doing in the community; it’s the kids who bring down that tension level”
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Sgt. Tom Lenox

The program has Lenox optimistic about changing the sometimes negative narrative around relationships between law enforcement and citizens.

“You see the tone and the tension and stress levels of some of the things we’re out here doing in the community; it’s the kids who bring down that tension level,” Lenox said. Perhaps the biggest payoff is seeing adults who’ve admitted to previous negative encounters with police express appreciation and respect for the work of PAL, Lenox said.

Students at this year’s camp toured Gannon’s Forensic Investigation Center, a crime simulation laboratory where they learned about fingerprinting technology and other investigative techniques. Students also received a visit from Erie SWAT and toured armored law enforcement vehicles, ambulances and firetrucks. Other activities included a variety of sports, from football to swimming, and from dancing to wrestling.

The program typically awards bicycles to the top 10 campers, but a conversation between Lenox and Michael Peterson, owner of World Gutter Systems, led to bicycle donations from 47 local businesses and a number of individuals. The concluding award and recognition ceremony ended triumphantly as 207 donated bicycles were presented to the 207 campers.

Lenox said he hopes to see continued growth in the number of students involved with PAL. “Every year the number seems to double,” he said. “I just had a meeting with the city of Erie school district, and they want us in every school.”

Lenox said the response from the community has been overwhelming. “It’s a little personal for me, because I (was) one of those kids. It strikes a nerve,” he said.

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