Ablack plastic garbage bag poked through the collar of Johnny Gutierrez's T-shirt and covered the top half of his blue gym shorts. "I have to wear...

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Ablack plastic garbage bag poked through the collar of Johnny Gutierrez’s T-shirt and covered the top half of his blue gym shorts.

“I have to wear a garbage bag because I haven’t maintained weight. I need to lose 13 pounds for this next fight,” said Gutierrez, 14, explaining the boxer’s trick of wearing plastic beneath clothing to increase sweat and shed weight faster.

Boxing and basketball, he said, have kept him out of trouble and, quite possibly, spared him the fate of other young men who have been killed on the streets of Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.

“I know all of them who got shot,” he said, reeling off the names: “Adam, Antonio Pinto, Fernando … “

Seattle police say violence in South Park has quieted since spring, when residents vented their rage and fear to city and police officials after a fatal drive-by shooting. Residents demanded better-lighted streets, more police attention and more constructive activities for kids.

To help PAL

To volunteer or donate to the Greater King County Police Athletic League, contact executive director Dana Chapman at 206-726-2626 or pal@kingcountypal.com.

Officials responded by reaching out to the tiny neighborhood in South Seattle, where Spanish is spoken in more than half of the households and where poverty, gang violence and cultural differences often make for an uneasy relationship between young people and police.

In a step to bridge the divide, the Seattle Police Department last month joined the almost century-old Police Activities League (PAL), a national volunteer organization that aims to provide activities for at-risk youth and allow them personal interaction with officers. The idea behind PAL is to build self-esteem, encourage children to stay in school, provide after-school activities and allow kids to see officers as role models and mentors. PAL programs are free to kids.

In South Park, Seattle officers are now volunteering their time coaching the neighborhood’s young boxers. They also are trying to hire a bilingual teacher to work with officers in helping kids with their homework.

The young people the officers most want to reach are the so-called “fence-sitters,” kids who haven’t quite decided between school and the streets. With one major gang and at least six smaller, loosely formed gangs operating in South Park, Seattle police hope to provide a counterbalance to the allure of drugs, guns and crime.

Last month, Officer Adrian Diaz made his second visit to the gym where Gutierrez has been training since he was 9 years old. Diaz already has recruited five other Seattle officers, all of them tactical-defense instructors, to coach and tutor kids who spend their after-school hours sweating and sparring inside the tiny gym west of Boeing Field.

“He was OK, except for the hook. … The hook was a little sloppy,” Gutierrez said after working on punch combinations with Diaz. Though he chided Diaz for his boxing skills, Gutierrez was encouraged by the officer’s presence.

“It shows they actually care about our community and it’s not just cops trying to get you in trouble,” he said. “I’ve met [Diaz] a couple times. He’s a good guy, he’s good to be around.”

A world of potential

Though the national Police Activities League (PAL) is nearly 100 years old, the Greater King County PAL was formed by members of the King County Sheriff’s Office in 2003. Diaz and his fellow officers joined the local chapter a few weeks ago.

It took a year for the King County chapter to gain charity status and another year to secure a $62,000 state grant to buy sports equipment and hire teachers to work with law-enforcement volunteers in after-school tutoring programs, said sheriff’s Sgt. Reid Johnson.

So far, deputies have taken kids shopping for Christmas presents, set up a tutoring program in a Skyway school, and are coaching kids in judo, dance and volleyball.

Deputies are now working to set up their own boxing program. Earlier this month they received a truckload of Everlast boxing gear: mouth guards, helmets, gloves, punching bags, jump ropes, a portable ring.

Deputies are still negotiating with a White Center community center for permission to turn a racquetball court into a temporary gym, Johnson said.

Though he sees a world of potential for PAL, “it’s been very difficult getting money raised” for programs, Johnson said. And, he said, more community members need to get involved because there aren’t enough deputies or officers to meet the need.

As for community involvement in South Park, the Seattle officers who just joined PAL lucked out in meeting Juan Garcia and four other volunteer coaches who started a neighborhood boxing gym in 1997. About 25 kids, five of them girls, regularly train at the gym, with the same number making sporadic visits, Garcia said.

“The gym always took high-risk gang members” who changed their behavior, Garcia said. Now, the gym doesn’t get many “direct gang members,” maybe because kids who might’ve considered joining a gang chose boxing instead, he said.

In 2001, the gym partnered with Sea Mar Community Health Center and moved to a bungalow in Boulevard Park, just south of South 96th Street.

Making choices

“South Park is a whole different world at night. There’re drug dealers, prostitutes, car prowlers and a lot of people who want to start fights,” Garcia said.

For teens, he said, “it only takes one bad choice down here in South Park.”

In the past 18 months, there have been plenty of examples to prove Garcia’s point: In March 2004, a gunman shot four youths on South Cloverdale Street. Two died.

Seven months later, a 20-year-old man was fatally shot three blocks away.

In April and May of this year, two 16-year-olds were killed in separate drive-by shootings.

Compared with other neighborhoods, the number of shootings in South Park “may not seem like a lot,” said Diaz, who works with the department’s minority advisory councils and spends time in South Seattle schools. But South Park, he said, only has 3,500 residents, “so the community is very small.”

Though most of the shooting victims had gang ties, one boy, Fernando Esqueda, seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was fatally shot April 18 while riding in his brother’s car.

“Fernando Esqueda was one of our kids and [his death] impacted our gym pretty seriously,” Garcia said of the 16-year-old. “I truly believe that if he’d stayed with the program, he would’ve been here at the time he was shot.”

Boxing is huge in the Hispanic community, and its appeal with young people is growing, thanks to TV shows such as “The Contender” and the Oscar-winning movie “Million Dollar Baby,” Garcia said. And Hispanics who’ve succeeded in the sport are ready role models, he said, pointing to former world junior welterweight champ Julio César Chávez of Mexico and Seattle flyweight Randy Gomez, 20, who trains at the South Park gym and competed in the 2005 U.S. Championship.

PAL operates the country’s second-largest amateur boxing program and hosts one of three tournaments to qualify members of the U.S. Olympic boxing team.

“In the next few years, we’ll have an Olympic qualifier and eventually, we’ll have some pros,” Garcia said of the local chapter. “Someday we’ll have a kid who says, ‘Yeah, I got my start in South Park.’ “

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com