It’s just shy of 10 a.m. on a Saturday in February, and two pairs of hands—a white police officer’s and a black teenager’s—are bound by two ropes at the wrist. For several minutes, they struggle, trying to squirm out of their makeshift handcuffs, but when either tries to make a move, the other follows, both at the mercy of the strange, intractable pull of the rope and each other. Other officer-teenager pairings have found escape through stubborn willpower, and they cheer on this last struggling duo. Time is ticking down—less than a minute left—and the cop and the kid exchange sighs and resigned laughter. Digging their heels into the Astroturf, they make one more last-ditch effort. “I think we’re stuck,” the officer, Ian, finally says to Wayne, his teenage partner.
The purpose of this morning’s session, hosted at the UA House at Fayette, a community center in East Baltimore run by Under Armour and a local nonprofit, is to get unstuck, and, more practically, to address the myriad ways in which Baltimore police and inner-city youth find themselves at odds. In the years since April 2015, when Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in police custody, perhaps no other American city has endured such tension between its law enforcement officers and the community they stand to protect. The civil unrest that unfolded days after Gray’s death gradually turned violent, and, as the national media broadcast images of officers in riot gear pitted against black teenagers, racial stereotypes among both officers and youth became even more deeply entrenched. Later that month, at the mayor’s request, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into racial bias within the Baltimore Police Department, and the department, reeling from the scrutiny, became desperate for solutions.
In May, 2015, six weeks after Gray’s death, Under Armour executive Kip Fulks donated $250,000 to a program called the Police Youth Challenge. A partnership between the Baltimore Police Department and Outward Bound, the wilderness education nonprofit, it had been founded in 2008 as a weekly workshop in which off-duty officers met with kids from at-risk neighborhoods for trust-building exercises at the Baltimore Chesapeake Outward Bound School’s campus, at Leakin Park. At the program’s core was the idea of “contact theory,” the belief that adversarial groups can learn to empathize with each other when working toward a common goal—a strategy used to mediate conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. It’s a building block of community policing, the theory that officers shouldn’t just enforce the law but also form relationships with the people they’re protecting.
The program had promising early results: One study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor Peter Winch showed that at the end of a single session, the number of kids who thought Baltimore cops were racist dropped by 50 percent, while 60 percent more officers had a positive opinion of the city’s youth. But funding was inconsistent, and only certain officers attended the program. Thanks in part to Fulks’s donation, the Police Youth Challenge has become part of the Baltimore Police Department’s weekly training, with each of the force’s 3,000 officers mandated to attend at least once per year. A further boon came in April 2018, when Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed into law the Public Safety and Violence Prevention Act, which granted up to $10 million dollars annually to support violence reduction, of which the Police Youth Challenge will see $300,000 a year from 2020 to 2023. For Ginger Mihalik, the executive director of the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School, the funding was a godsend. Here, she said in a statement, was a chance for Outward Bound to “help build sustainable, lasting change in Baltimore.”
An hour before the rope-escape puzzle, a half dozen officers convene in a small classroom for a briefing led by Avi Rubinsky, the Police Youth Challenge program manager, who has worked for Outward Bound for a decade. They are lieutenants, members of the SWAT team, and other veterans of the force, and there’s a first-day-of-school feeling of anticipation among them. Squeezed into spaces befitting much smaller people, they check their phones constantly, like students cooped up against their will.
“The fight has already begun, and we haven’t even done anything,” says one officer during the open-conversation period of the briefing. His tone speaks to the helplessness a lot of officers in Baltimore feel—paralyzed by the dilemma of trying to protect the community while simultaneously answering for the police’s past transgressions. The officer recalls a house-call during which a boy, perhaps 3 years old, met him on the front porch with a string of obscenities. “Thank you very much, have a great day,” the officer recalls responding, walking away as the boy and his family looked on. Another officer nods knowingly. “Perceptions of officers are getting worse,” he says. “They look at us doing the disciplining that their parents should be doing. It’s just us and them.”
Rubinsky, who started with Outward Bound as a field instructor in 2008, understands these frustrations. He has witnessed a range of officers’ reactions, from stone-faced silence to vehement opposition to fierce criticism of how he and the rest of the Outward Bound staff “talk down” to the officers about how they’re perceived on the street. “We know the problems; we know how youth look at us. It’s redundant to hear it,” says officer Scott West, a 23-year veteran of the force.
While Rubinsky’s briefing to the officers frequently harps on the message of “having a good time,” the more ambitious goal is to unite officers and community members and forge positive future interactions. In a city as big and factioned as Baltimore, with individual neighborhoods operating like mini-cities unto themselves, that may be easier said than done. Officers recount their difficulties having to “politely enforce” while making sure they’re not letting crimes go unchecked. Moreover, many say they’ve observed a frustrating imbalance—they give community members respect but don’t receive any in return.
Officer James Brooks, a veteran of the force, believes mutual respect is the key to building good relationships. He has patrolled the Cherry Hill Town Center, a strip mall of restaurants and retail shops on the southern edge of Baltimore, for 23 years, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone there with a bad word to say about him. “I get the respect from the community because I respect the community,” Brooks says. “I don’t demand respect and then don’t give any back.”
Kindness, too, is imperative. “Generally, I think it’s a myth that kids don’t like the police,” Brooks says. “I think they’re fascinated with the police, but I think that often they meet the wrong kind of police officers.” He relays the story of saying hello to a father walking with his young daughter in the Town Center. “I don’t say hello to police,” the man told Brooks, urging his daughter to turn away, too. But time and time again, Brooks tried saying hello. And eventually, the man and his daughter relented. “Now we say hello, how are you doing, all that stuff all the time,” says Brooks.
Rubinsky agrees that’s a strategy that works. “Positive interactions will make a difference in their perception of you all,” he tells the group of officers. “The biggest thing is, don’t fake it. The students will see it. They’re going to see right through it.”
Officer Brooks, who is black, is a reminder that divisions between the city’s police and its community do not fall neatly along racial lines: Baltimore City’s police force is 45 percent white, 40 percent African American, and 12 percent Hispanic—far more diverse than Baltimore County’s. But white officers are still overrepresented compared with the city they serve, which is a mere 28 percent white and 63 percent African American. And on this particular Saturday morning, when the students come face-to-face with officers on the indoor turf of Under Armour’s facility, race is the biggest distinguishing factor. While just five out of 20 officers are people of color, all 30 students in attendance are minorities, hailing from the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Hampden, a once working-class neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified. According to several of the students, that sudden transformation has led to occasional verbal disputes between older white residents and younger minorities attending the neighborhood’s charter schools.
So it’s understandable that the students seem slightly withdrawn as they convene with officers at the center of the field, which boasts a giant Baltimore Ravens logo. Outward Bound staffers split them into two groups and, after a quick briefing, toss rubber balls into the air. It’s the first test of the day: making sure the balls don’t touch the ground, a simple but evocative lesson that requires teamwork, concentration, and close physical contact. When the last ball inevitably falls—after 50 consecutive touches—there’s a communal sigh, and then laughter.
Later, a unique conversation emerges during a role-playing skit in which officers pretend to be teenagers and teenagers pretend to be officers. The “officers” approach the “teenagers” first. “You guys gotta move, get going,” they say. The “teenagers,” mocking youthful nonchalance, curse the officers while staring at their imaginary iPhones. Tensions rise as the “officers” begin to use more force, and the “teenagers,” sensing a fight brewing, start mock recording the “officers” with their hands and yell, “I’m filming you! I see what you’re about to do. You’re on camera!” This goes on for a minute or so before a black youth, the smallest in the group, makes his fingers into a fake gun and aims it at the “teenagers.” Suddenly, the role play ends. “See, none of us want to do that,” says a white officer to the entire group. “No one.”
The skit prompts a longer conversation about respect and force, with each side listening as the other lays out its woes. Albert Dellarocco, a 20-year veteran with the Baltimore Police Department and a repeat Police Youth Challenge visitor, says the skit puts into perspective the various concerns youth have with the system. “These are the kids that are going to grow up and run the world one day,” he says. “It’s ideal to have these honest conversations.”
But for many students taking part, conversations with officers are a daunting prospect. Three years ago, when Jason Lewis, then a high school teacher at REACH! Partnership School, in Northeast Baltimore’s Clifton Park neighborhood, first brought his students to the Police Youth Challenge, he didn’t tell them where they were going.
“I was mad at Mr. Lewis,” says Temaih, one of his students. “I wanted to get back on that bus and go home.” Mr. Lewis knew the student had strong feelings about the police, given his family’s run-ins with the law, but he still pushed Temaih to interact with the officers. He did, and one particular conversation with an officer prompted Temaih to think about his experience and how to embrace his discomfort. “After that conversation, I apologized to Mr. Lewis,” he says. “And the rest of the day was good.”
“I thought I was on Scared Straight!,” says Zyaire, another of Mr. Lewis’s students. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know how they were gonna treat us, what they were gonna do.” Zyaire admits that as early as 13 he turned to selling drugs to provide for his family, and he was frightened that his past was going to be excavated, made an example of. “But when I got there, it was cool,” he says. “It was like a mentorship. We had conversations about how to all be better.”
Since then, Zyaire and Temaih have told their classmates about the program, and have even found a few recruits in their fellow students at REACH! Zyaire has dreams of becoming a cop in Baltimore. He knows the conversations aren’t over, however. Far from it.
Back at UA House at Fayette, discussions that were halting during the morning session are more relaxed come lunchtime. Between bouts of laughter, officers pat kids on the shoulder and, in a couple of instances, give them hugs. Wayne, the 16-year-old who struggled with the rope-tie exercise, says the tension between officers and teenagers dissipated as they played more activities and games. When asked what the key was to forming better relationships, he’s matter-of-fact: “You have to speak your mind, that’s it. Just tell the truth.”