With every new year comes new beginnings and, at Rizzo PAL in Port Richmond, a new cop is ready to take the reins.
Police Officer Paul Pugh, 40, began his new position as center director in mid-December.
Pugh follows in the footsteps of former director Ernie Rehr, who retired after spending nearly three decades running the programs at Clearfield and Belgrade streets.
Hailing from the Logan section of Philadelphia, the 40-year-old police officer will mark 14 years on the force this August.
Graduating high school, Pugh initially had plans to pursue his dreams in art and attended a year at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, worked at BestBuy, and in 2005, applied to the police academy and decided to transition to a career in law enforcement.
“I also thought about being a police officer, but at the time, I was 155 pounds and I said, ‘I might not last. I might get tossed around,’ ” said Pugh, laughing and looking already at home in the computer room at Rizzo.
Interactions with police in his youth influenced his decision.
“I didn’t have a direct mentor, but I always had positive experiences with cops,” he said. “Whether just speaking to them on the street, or the D.A.R.E. program in school at a younger age, I never had a negative experience with a police officer my whole life growing up, so it was easy for me to gravitate toward that.”
And, PAL police officers run in the family.
“My daughter’s grandmother was a PAL officer for many years. She retired in 2013, so I was always around Cozen PAL at 17th and Brown,” Pugh said. “So, that’s where I really got a lot of experience being around the PAL atmosphere. That really gave me the interest to put in a transfer.”
Additionally, Pugh gained experience working with children, helping his mother, who operated a day care center.
Pugh began his career as a patrol officer in the 19th Police District in 2007.
“It’s a very busy district and, over the course of a year, I gained a lot of experience being around a lot of veteran officers who I’m still friends with today,” he said.
During his 12 years as a patrol officer, Pugh got involved in community outreach, including playing bingo and painting with individuals at senior centers.
“I did that for my last two years in the 19th district, and that gave me an opportunity to engage the public in a different way versus an aggressive way in which we are sometimes met with on the streets.”
In an environment where police relations with youth are constantly in the spotlight, providing a positive role model as a police officer is essential.
“Going from patrol to PAL is a different animal, in that your shift is all kids. It’s all their troubles, and you have to put on several different hats,” he said. “A kid might come in sick, a kid may have had an argument with a parent, a kid may be failing school or being bullied. And, you have to navigate that. And, you can engage kids in various ways.”
Pugh pointed out despite all the different roles he takes on, he never does it alone.
“I thought I was going to come in and it was going to be me and a gym, a bunch of balls and 50 kids,” said Pugh, laughing. “But then I realized, as you get to know people, the community wants to come in because they want to see the kids succeed, also.”
Part of that community encompasses former Rizzo PAL kids.
Gianna Bradley, who began coming to Rizzo PAL with Officer Rehr when she was 8, has stayed on as attendance coordinator for Pugh.
“She made it very, very easy to get acclimated,” he said. “She’s the perfect person to have here. We have people who grew up here in PAL who want to come back and volunteer or work. And, Jessica [Gallagher] was another one of Officer Rehr’s PAL kids who wanted to stay on board and help. She’ll be picking back up with the Positive Images program.”
Prior to taking over at Rizzo, Pugh spent nine months at Fairhill PAL.
“It was tough because I was leaving my kids,” he said. “And, these were Officer Ernie’s kids. But, I think if you come in with respect, like, ‘I’ll give you your respect and you give me mine and we’ll get along great. We don’t have to be best friends, but we’re always going to respect each other.’ ”
Rehr worked alongside Pugh to make the transition easier.
“When you’re working with someone, it’s an easier transition than just taking over and starting your own thing,” he said. “You see all the strengths the PAL center had and you can expand upon that instead of tearing down and rebuilding. I can honestly say my first few months here have been positive.”
While Pugh isn’t starting from scratch in regard to programming because all PAL centers have a blueprint to follow, he is starting from square one with the kids who walk through the door.
“With the children, you have to get to know them and you have to gain trust,” he said. “If you don’t, it’s not going to be a good system.”
Creating a good system starts with respect, according to Pugh.
“You’re going to respect the house. You’re not going to curse or fight. And, have fun. Those are the basic rules I brought with me,” he said.
And, playing Connect 4 with whomever is up for the challenge.
Pugh is currently undefeated in the giant game in the center’s game room, and is offering a prize for any contender who beats him.
Computer Club is on track to make a comeback in the near future, and there are talks of setting up a haunted house in the fall.
For now, building strong relationships with all the youth who utilize the center and the community surrounding it is the game plan.
“I know I’m going to have to work to build that. People have to know to trust me and be able to come to me and that trust takes a little while,” Pugh said. “I have to make sure that every kid who walks through the door gets treated fairly. I have to make sure everything PAL has to offer, that every kid has the opportunity to experience that. No kid can get cheated on my watch.”