In Baltimore, a social justice organization led by teens has begun training city police on how to better interact with the communities they serve.

As the list of African Americans who’ve died or were maimed in police custody grows, plenty of groups have come forward with ideas and strategies for reform. One idea: How about letting African-American youth train police on how to better interact with their communities? After all, it’s mostly black youth who are having deadly encounters with police.

This is exactly what happened last week in Baltimore, where teens from the Inner Harbor Project, a youth-led social-justice nonprofit, brought police academy cadets and city officers together to train them on how to better serve and protect young people of color.

Relations between cops and black youth in Baltimore are fraught to say the least, and recent conflagrations suffered in the city offer only more evidence of this. On Monday, the Baltimore Sun released video of what looks like the beginnings of the April 26 fracas with police, which was spurred in large part by angst around publicized details of the gruesome death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.   

But tensions between black youth and Baltimore police existed long before that—particularly around the Inner Harbor, which today acts as a sort of outdoor mall where groups of teens hang deep amid the trendy clothing stores and restaurants characterizing the downtown business district. There have been a number of clashes between young city residents and police patrolling the area, who are often called in by business owners who feel threatened by the teen clusters.

The Inner Harbor Project was created in large part to help young people better navigate these public spaces and through the gazes that see them in a menacing light. In fact, IHP members recently announced the release of “The Harbor Card,” a program the youth group negotiated to help foster a more relaxed environment between young patrons and the business community. The card grants discounts to young shoppers at participating outlets.

                                                                            (Inner Harbor Project)

Creating more relaxed relationships with the police has been tougher, though, so the youth-led police training program aims to help law enforcement and teens see more eye-to-eye. The youth group met with 46 cadets and seven police officers from the department’s Inner Harbor unit last week, where 18-year-old youth leader Adrian Hughes tells CityLab they discussed empathy. The teens asked their trainees about their childhoods, and about what kind of relationships they had with police before deciding to become police themselves.

IHP youth then gave the cops a few pointers, as Hughes explained:

“We talked to them about how to approach young people, how to talk to them as human beings, [telling them] don’t try to command us, but just speak to us as regular people. We also talked about them not jumping to conclusions, assuming youth are doing something they’re not supposed to. And [we told them] to try to keep situations calm by keeping a positive or calm attitude.”

African Americans young and old, in Baltimore and beyond, have long complained that police often aggressively enter the spaces where they congregate, barking orders, and responding lividly in situations where measured responses are probably better warranted. The situation in June involving black teens at a swimming pool party in McKinney, Texas, is but one example of this among far too many others in recent years, some in which cameras captured questionable police behavior.

IHP members spent a year researching the source of the tensions between Baltimore police and black youth. Much of that research time was spent conducting focus groups among various city constituencies, including Inner Harbor business owners, about their perceptions of young, black Baltimore residents and why they gather in these spaces.

Black youth in the city have been thinking of ways to improve police relations long before the riots that broke out in April. Another youth-led Baltimore organization called New Lens had already produced much of the qualitative data IHP used for its research. Back in 2009 and 2010, New Lens had also conducted focus groups with Baltimore cops and provided trainings for the police force before shutting the program down due to lack of funding.

New Lens executive director Rebecca Yenawine recently wrote in a blog post for the Open Society Institute—titled “Why Baltimore Won’t Get Justice From Police”—that such problems have escalated largely because black youth haven’t enjoyed equitable service in the city.

“Communities need equity but instead get enforcement,” wrote Yenawine. “This is a recipe for tension. No matter how well officers are trained, the tension of oppressed and oppressor are embedded in the culture and role of each group.”

From New Lens’ own research on the matter, they found that the problems with law enforcement can’t be solved by improving policing practices alone. Wrote Yenawine:

After pretty successfully training two-thirds of patrol officers in Baltimore City, New Lens emerged with some key insights: training and relationship building aren’t enough to combat the structural issues that exist, and although race is important it is not the defining factor in what makes for a compassionate officer. What we learned is that the most effective way to reduce police/community tensions is to create alternative structures that reduce the contact that police and community have.

In a report New Lens produced, they offer a few examples of these alternative structures, such as creating “youth response teams”—“youth-savvy” citizens that business owners can call instead of police when problems occur.

Still, improving police relations with youth is imperative. Today, IHP youth are holding another round of trainings with Baltimore police to build upon the issues discussed last week. Hughes says that his neighbors had much better contact with police for a spell, when the Baltimore Police Athletic League was running in his community. The recreation centers where the police league was set up provided police who coached sports and helped kids with their homework, says Hughes. That program has been in flux the past few years, which Hughes says is part of the problem.

“Maybe I’m just from another era,” wrote Larry Alexander, Hughes’ fellow youth leader at IHP after his training session with the police last week. “But to me, when we lost those centers the communication started to break down and cops stopped being just normal people and became something evil in the eyes of the community. Maybe we should bring back the community events… . Just a thought.”

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