By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY – Lt. Wilber Santiago saw plenty of youth hanging around the Black Lives Matter street mural dedication Friday on MLK Boulevard between Atlantic and Pacific avenues.
Santiago wasn’t on patrol, but looking to engage them and the community. While that is part of Santiago’s job as coordinator of the Atlantic City Police Department’s Neighborhood Coordination Unit, he said it’s what he loves.
“This is my community. I was raised here,” said the 13-year department veteran. “I have friends I see on the streets who I grew up with every day. Some took a different path from me, some on the wrong path. But I want to be here. I’m here in Atlantic City because of family and friends.”
A little more than a year ago Santiago made history as the first Latino to reach the rank of lieutenant in the Atlantic City Police Department.
“Will is going to do such a tremendous job,” AC Police Chief Henry White said at the time Santiago was promoted on Feb. 26, 2019. “If he just does half of what he did when he was director of PAL, Patrol is going to be in a really good place, therefore the department’s going to be in a good place and the citizens of this city will be in a good place.”
A ‘PAL’ to the Community
Santiago served as the department’s director of the Police Athletic League for three years. He said White recently asked him to work with PAL again.
“The chief reassigned me back to PAL. We have a lot of wonderful programs,” Santiago said. “After [the coronavirus pandemic] we’re going to get back to what we are used to do.”
Santiago said AC’s PAL program has 27 different programs, ranging from sports like flag football, basketball and soccer to educational like after-school program, computer and STEM projects. He also mention a broadcasting program where participants take part in their own newscast.
Tree of Progress
What Santiago spoke most proudly about what he called his “Tree of Progress.” Santiago said he gives participants guidance to one of tree branches – law enforcement and municipal service, higher education and military.
“I want to give you three options,” Santiago said. “It doesn’t stop there. If you don’t want any of my branches, we can help you plant your own tree. They know, though, if they come to PAL and they need any assistance with any branch they decided to take, we’re there to help them.”
Sometimes, a person takes a couple of branches, like Santiago did. He attended Atlantic City High School before moving on to Holy Spirit High School, where he was a successful student-athlete. He briefly played baseball at UCLA before coming home for family reasons.
Santiago has shared his experience with numerous group. For example, in June he talked with the Urban Teacher Academy at Stockton University, made up of students interested in the education field in urban areas.
Along with his business police schedule he has sat on the Coalition for a Safer Community Atlantic City board of directors.
Santiago said, though, that urge to become a police officer as a young child never left him and led him to entering the police academy. He said he sees his role as representing a positive face for the Atlantic City community, especially for young people.
“I always had a passion and need to become a police officers since I was 5-6 years old,” Santiago said. “I never looked at it as being a role model, but something we needed to know and do. As a young kid, I saw how the police helped people; a person who does good in the community.
“I’ve really tried to take that philosophy as something we need to do. We need to take an interest in our you and take the initiative when it comes to them,” he added.
Santiago said that what drives him past all the negativity about police today because he knows the positive connection that can and does exist. He said beyond the community recognition and awards he has received, he just want to be there for the Atlantic City community – his community, as the lieutenant puts it.
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