“You can make change for yourself, but that’s not doing anything unless you take people with you,” said Diamond Sampson, facing a classroom full of 48 Police Officer Trainees. Diamond, the Director of Youth Leadership at the Inner Harbor Project, was responding to a question about why she decided to get involved with repairing relationships between teens and police. With tensions running high following the recent police violence in North Carolina and Oklahoma that has further eroded communities’ trust for police officers, the pressure is on. “In my opinion, you can’t be successful if you do not have a trail that leads behind you—a legacy—and leave a mark.”
Teens from the Inner Harbor Project have been leading Youth Engagement Training sessions since May 2015. This youth-created, youth-led workshop focuses on improving communication, increasing understanding, and building empathy between teens and police officers. Youth Leaders developed the training based on their research into negative interactions between youth and police, which they found often arose due to cultural, physical, or emotional misunderstandings. On September 27, Diamond joined four Youth Leaders, Sam Greah, Kat Carr, Jaz’mean McFadden, and Dayana Wiley, in conducting this workshop for the entire class of trainees at Baltimore’s Police Academy.
Trainees participated in scenarios depicting good and bad interactions between teens and law enforcement, and the Youth Leaders prompted them to point out the differences between situations that escalated and situations that resolved. One trainee identified a problem of interpretation that can lead to misunderstandings. “The difficulty with teens is that they still behave like they’re young, but they’re the size of adults. Officers forget that they are still kids, and teens forget that they come off as grown.”
Several police trainees pushed back against the made-up scenarios, however, apparently doubting that teens would do their part to embody respect and de-escalate conflicts; one asked pointedly, “Which scenario do you think is more likely?” But the Youth Leaders had real-life stories to share, too. Diamond and Kat described a situation in which they witnessed poor police conduct when they tried to mediate a conflict between teens during a Peace Ambassador shift. “[The officer] told the boy to step back, but he didn’t say how far to step back. Then he got in his space and said ‘Didn’t I tell you to step back?’”
Although the group of trainees was hesitant to condemn the actions of officers (one trainee explained, “If we weren’t there, we don’t know what happened”), they admitted that the communication was clearly less than ideal in that scenario. The Youth Leaders also shared stories about teens being shepherded out of public places by police officers, often with no explanation given for why they had to leave. In these cases, they argued, a calm demeanor and better communication from officers would give teens a chance to show they weren’t doing anything wrong. When teens felt they were being targeted unfairly based on discriminatory stereotypes, feelings of frustration and anger were more likely to escalate the situation.
“Teens are automatically defensive,” Diamond reminded the trainee officers. In fact, the trainees often became defensive as well in the course of the training session. No one—neither the trainees nor the youth leaders—held back, so the conversation got real very quickly. When one trainee asked the youth leaders, “Do you like cops?” nervous laughter rose around the room. Sam stated frankly that he had disliked police for most of his life and had been skeptical that police officers could listen to the community and change their behavior. “The Inner Harbor Project changed my mindset,” he explained. After working directly with police, Sam felt more optimistic about the potential to improve their interactions with teens.
The Youth Leaders also pointed out that distrust of police altered teens’ behavior around them. Based on their own experiences and the experiences of others, many teens don’t automatically assume that police are there to protect them. Diamond admitted that, even though she knows police officers and works directly with them, she still understands why young people find the uniform intimidating. “When approached, even people doing nothing wrong will think of an escape route in their mind,” she acknowledged. “Typically, when you see an officer, the uniform is intimidating, no matter the size of the officer. Even if you’re not doing anything wrongful, you talk yourself into a bad place, thinking you may have done something.”
Asked what their main frustrations were with teens, several trainees said they felt teens should be more respectful of authority and follow directions without question. “Why hasn’t anyone taught them better?” one trainee asked insistently. The Youth Leaders fielded this question by illuminating the fact that distrust of police didn’t originate with teens—it is a larger cultural force based on lived experience. Mutual respect does not necessarily exist by default. Besides, Kat added, officers shouldn’t make assumptions about teens’ backgrounds. “Not everyone grows up in a great household,” she explained. “There’s not always someone there to teach them. Teens won’t always know how cops would want them to behave, but cops can work toward that in every interaction.”
The importance of empathy for people with different backgrounds came up over and over throughout the day. An icebreaker exercise run by Jaz’mean revealed that the 48 cadets hailed from states all over the U.S. and even from other countries. Within the ranks of POTs, there were differences of opinion even between trainees hailing from Baltimore County versus Baltimore City. The consensus? Lifestyle differences increase the difficulty of adapting and understanding others’ experiences, which makes good communication even more important. Open-mindedness is crucial for a police force with such diverse backgrounds.
During the session, a couple of Lieutenants poked their heads in to offer their endorsement and welcome the youth leaders, expressing their confidence in the work done by the Inner Harbor Project. “These are my favorite kids,” said Lt. Olson. “They reduced incidents in the Inner Harbor by 86%.” He said the Inner Harbor Project succeeded because people worked together, not individually, for a better future. Diamond summed up this effect: “By you helping somebody, they can help you down the line. All these connections you develop, they’re more likely to help you because you helped them, especially if you help them when no one else is. You start with yourself, but you build a bigger picture.”