A Police Officer, A Gentleman, and a Youth Mentor
On the 5th of September, Officer Joseph (Joe) Marrone of the 77th Street Community Police Station in South Los Angeles will be helping to host a benefit rock concert in Hollywood with some high-profile musicians. His purpose? To help raise funds for the 77th Street Area Police Activities League (PAL) youth programs that support inner-city children.
Early on, Joe would never have predicted his current job. He’s traversed the skies in Cessnas as a teenager for sheer fun, he’s been deployed in Europe and the Middle East as a member of the Air Force (earning numerous awards and decorations along the way), and he’s wound his way through the streets of Los Angeles as a patrol officer. But growing up as a child in the Bronx (where he attended Immaculate Conception Catholic school and served as an altar boy), Joe always had a sense of a calling to connect with and serve people in a way that would somehow elevate them into a richer and more meaningful life journey. This “inner calling” finally caught up with him—in an unexpected (and originally resisted) function as a police officer in charge of youth programs.
We interviewed Officer Marrone to find out more about his story.
Bellus: Describe the path that led you to become a police officer.
Officer Marrone: It never crossed my mind that I would become a police officer. Straight out of high school, with the deregulation of the telephone industry, I teamed up with a friend and we started our own business installing public pay phones and setting up major business phone systems. It was hard work, but we did well, and it was during this period that I started to learn about responsibility, discipline, and leadership. I wanted to stretch myself further, and at the age of 21 I joined the Air Force.
Bellus: What did you do in the Air Force?
I did a lot of security—security at military bases, security for planes equipped with sensitive weaponry, etc. I was deployed to the Middle East in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, I was deployed to Aviano Air Base in Italy during the Bosnia/Kosovo conflict, and I was deployed to Iraq. The Air Force was a period of excitement and adventure for me, as well as stress.
Bellus: What brought about the transition from being in the Air Force to working as a police officer?
When I got out of the Air Force, I didn’t have a clear direction. A lot of my friends were police officers or were on their way to becoming police officers. On a whim, I went along for the ride. I was a patrol officer in South and West Los Angeles—handling robberies, car accidents, and so on.
In 2002, I was asked to transfer over into the Juvenile Impact Program.
Bellus: What was your reaction to the new role?
I was absolutely resistive. I didn’t want to do it. My goal was to work in air support flying helicopters or to do anti-terrorist work. But here I was thrown into the juvenile world, and at first I was just miserable. I agreed to do it for 6 months, and I was sure that I would be out of there when those 6 months were up.
Bellus: What changed your experience as a youth programs officer?
One thing was that I was able to tap into my military background to help the children. I helped to teach them about discipline, organization, and leadership. I helped mentor children into becoming responsible young adults. The kids loved it, and the results were great.
Still, when my 6-month trial was over, I was ready to “bail.”
Bellus: What changed your mind?
The kids were begging me to stay in the Explorer Program (Now called the Cadet Program). “No, Officer Marrone! Don’t go! You can’t go!” That did tug at my heart strings…but then came one particular girl that hit me with the “knock-out punch.”
She looked me hard straight in the eyes and said this: “That’s okay, officer Marrone. You can go. My father left me. Why should you be any different?”
That was it. I was all in. I committed myself to stay, and it’s now been 14 years working with inner-city children.
Bellus: What are the rewards of your job?
It’s extremely gratifying. I watch children who I have mentored grow up to become successful young adults. I help them get into college. I see children from low-income families who thought they could never advance and who thought they would be on welfare for the rest of their life, and I see them rise upward, become productive, get jobs, start a successful career, and so on. I help children get out of gangs, and I help children get out of horrifying situations of abuse.
Sometimes people have a perception of police as only being in a patrol car. There is actually so much more to the job. There are other roles and functions. Ultimately, with the PAL education, mentoring, and sports programs that are in operation, we are engaged in the type of work that will ultimately make the patrol functions much easier.
Bellus: But youth programs is not where you thought you would end up?
No, never. And as I said, at first I heavily resisted it. But looking back to when I was just a young kid and I had some kind of inner sense of wanting to connect with people…well, maybe this is what that was all about.
Bellus: What are some of the challenges you face as a youth programs officer?
There’s never enough money to help them. You’re at the mercy of a number of negative cultural influences. You have kids who just have no idea that there is anything better possible…that there is more to the world than drugs and gangs or their own specific neighborhood. It can be hard to open their eyes and to widen their horizons, and sometimes the job has to be done without any parental support.
Moving forward, what would you like to see happening with PAL (Police Activities League) youth programs in Los Angeles—and around the country?
Specifically in my area I would like to have a real adequate building or community center to house our programs–a safe learning environment and a place for kids to hang out.
I would like the word to get out so that people know that PAL programs exist and that the police department is a safe place for kids to go. We can’t go wrong if we focus on these positive community programs and help them to grow.
And, of course, I would love people to come to our “Rock the Inner City” benefit concert to help support the cause.
Bellus: Thank you, Officer Marrone.