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Protesters blast name pick at S. Jamaica youth center

The Edward Byrne Center, located in the High School for Law Enforcement and Public Safety on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, was named to honor Byrne, a 22-year-old officer who was shot in 1988 by four men while he was guarding the house of a Guyanese immigrant who was to testify against a major drug dealer in Jamaica,

"If anyone deserves to have a PAL center named after him, it's Police Officer Edward Byrne," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. "He was assassinated, gunned down, in uniform less than two miles from here. He was a model police officer with a bright future ahead of him."

But about 10 residents and local leaders, including Jean Phelps, president of the Jamaica Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, want the name changed to commemorate a black police officer killed.

"Our objection is that according to the Police Athletic League, they name their centers after slain police officers," she said. "We have black police officers who have been killed in the line of duty."

Phelps, Rev. Charles Norris and others appealed to the Police Athletic League to name the center for a black officer, but the group had already talked to Byrne's family and did not want to upset them, Phelps said.

Dr. John Ryan, director of the PAL, said the center was named for Byrne because he was the last police officer killed in the 103rd Precinct, which covers Jamaica and part of South Jamaica.

"I understand what the group wanted," Ryan said. "There are African-American officers who have been killed in that area or were from that area."

But Phelps said Byrne, whose name appears on the street outside the 103rd Precinct, a Jamaica park, a football field in his hometown of Massapequa, a school in the Bronx and a host of justice grants and scholarships, has been properly honored.

"This center is in a black neighborhood," she said. "We want our black children who walk through that door to see black heroes and know that we have black heroes."

PAL is also working to create a commemorative wall honoring other slain police officers, particularly those representing a range of races and ethnicities, Ryan said.

"We are putting up a wall of fame in the vestibule to highlight other officers from that area so that the young children can see slain police officers are of all ethnic backgrounds," he said. "We hope people will focus on what center is all about."

The state-of-the-art center is actually the High School for Law Enforcement and Public Safety. "This PAL center is here not only for the high school kids," Ryan said at Tuesday's ribbon-cutting. "It's also here to serve kids from first grade up. We're getting ready for our day camp, which is the best thing we do."

PAL will have use of the building primarily in the afternoons, said Melissa, a staff member at the Hollis Foster Laurie PAL center, who was giving tours of the site. Youth at the Edward Byrne PAL Center will have access to three gyms, including a full-sized boxing gym; an art studio; a hydroponics garden; large computer labs; a performance arts space; a game room and more.

"It's a magnificent center," said Matthew Byrne, Edward Byrne's father and a retired police officer. "We're very honored by it."

PAL is a partnership between the New York Police Department and the community that provides activities for youth, said Diahann Malcolm, principal of the high school and a former PAL kid.

"I spent countless afternoons at the PAL center and because of the athletic skills I acquired, I played college volleyball and basketball," she said. "It was at PAL that I began to build the foundation of my leadership skills."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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