The grass was wet. This is the detail 12-year-old Keon Wilson-Hawkins remembers most about his first time in Leakin Park, a green, tree-smattered expanse bigger than Central Park that sprawls across the historically black neighborhoods of West Baltimore. Like many kids who grow up near the park, Keon had never set foot inside it. That changed this fall, when he reluctantly showed up for something called the Outward Bound Police Youth Challenge.
At 9:20 on a warm October morning, Keon and about two dozen other middle and high school students met in the park with 28 officers from the Baltimore Police Department. Especially after the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Baltimore has become a national example of charged community-police relations, and the first hour or so had all the awkwardness of a seventh-grade dance. “The cops are on one side,” recalls Ginger Mihalik, executive director of Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School. “The kids are on the other. They’re not talking. They’re uncomfortable even being near each other.”
The day started with a name game to break the ice, then progressed to team challenges like guiding a blindfolded partner through a “minefield” of objects, and culminated in a high-ropes course. At first, the cops and kids approached each other warily: 17-year-old Aneeka Diamond Brooks says that even though she’d never met a cop, she thought of them as rude and disrespectful. Cops’ opinions of Baltimore youth are similarly influenced by stereotypes: according to research, police who haven’t gone through the program overwhelmingly think Baltimore youth make poor decisions. Yet as the participants sat in a circle, debriefing how they performed in the activities, something shifted. There was nervous, hesitant laughter. Then real laughter. (It helped that the cops weren’t in uniform.)
The Police Youth Challenge uses the outdoors to decrease tensions between Baltimore kids and the officers who patrol their neighborhoods. The program started in 2008, after a particularly violent year that saw shootouts between Baltimore residents and police officers and a 15 percent spike in homicides. Shortly after, the Baltimore Police Department changed its training regimen to include community building and asked Outward Bound for help. The Baltimore Police Youth Challenge was born. It’s the only program of its kind in the county.
Even though the program is only a day long, research from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor Peter Winch has shown that it’s remarkably effective at building relationships and breaking down stereotypes, which could help reduce violent interactions in the future. While a day in the park might not have much impact on kids who have gone to summer camp or spent time in nature, Winch says, it can make a huge difference for kids who haven’t had those opportunities.
“There’s a whole group of kids in this country who haven’t had the opportunity to be outdoors,” says Winch. “To my mind, that’s part of the problem of racism and exclusion in America, but it’s also something we can do something about.”
The Police Youth Challenge is designed around a model known in psychology as “contact theory,” which has been used to mitigate conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and among ethnic groups in the Czech Republic. The theory is based on the idea that the best way to combat bias is simply by having two groups interact, preferably on neutral turf—like an urban park—and preferably with a shared goal, like completing a high-ropes course.
The early days of the Police Youth Challenge were promising: by the end of each day, the number of kids who thoughts cops were racist dropped by 50 percent, while the number of police officers who had a positive opinion of Baltimore city youth rose by 60 percent. But then funding fell through, and the program became voluntary. Between 2008 and 2015, just over 2,000 kids and cops went through the program.
Then, in 2015, an executive from Under Armour, which is based in Baltimore, learned of the Police Youth Challenge and expressed interest in funding it. “We met with him in March,” recalls Mihalik. “And in April, all hell breaks loose.” Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died while in police custody, and Baltimore exploded into riots. In the aftermath, relations between police and communities of color were as bad as they’d ever been. But with $250,000 from the Under Armour executive, Baltimore Outward Bound hoped to take steps toward changing that.
Today, the Police Youth Challenge is mandatory for the Baltimore police force. Over the next few years, each of the city’s 3,000 officers will spend a day in Leakin Park alongside 3,000 kids who live in neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime and school expulsion. Captain Sheri Sturm from the Baltimore Police Department says that while the 800 officers who have so far completed the program were initially apprehensive, there isn’t a single one who wouldn’t do it again. “It broke down a lot of barriers,” she says.
“One of the reasons I think it works is that the outdoors is the great equalizer,” adds Mihalik. “Plus, there’s all that research about what nature does for the brain.” Studies have shown that people who live near green space harbor fewer stress hormones, report less mental distress, and have lower rates of anxiety and depression.
The program has been so successful that earlier this year, the Christian Science Monitor heralded it as the “Outward Bound model to prevent police shootings.” But Outward Bound staff bristle at such phrasing. “It’s not intended to have a direct impact on reducing shootings,” says Ben Worden, marketing director for Baltimore Outward Bound. “It has a much longer arc than that. The goal is a long-term cultural shift.”
By early afternoon this October in Leakin Park, Keon found himself standing with the other participants, looking up at a series of cables strung between beech, oak, and maple trees. The ropes course was suspended 25 feet off the ground, and Keon was terrified—he doesn’t like heights.
Keon doesn’t talk much about what happened next, except to mumble that he didn’t make it all the way to the top. But Sturm and Mihalik say that the ropes course helps build trust and shows that even the toughest cops can be vulnerable. As one officer described it, a student came up to her and said, “I never knew police officers get scared.” The officer responded, “Well, I’m human.”
At the end of the day, Keon and 17-year-old Aneeka went home to their respective neighborhoods in West Baltimore, the same part of the city where Freddie Gray was from. Both still want to avoid police officers—Keon says it’s not like he’s going to run up and high-five one on the street—but their perspective has changed. They know a few cops by name now, and the cops, in turn, know them. “They’re actually very nice people,” Aneeka says.
A day in the park isn’t going to solve every problem of racial injustice and violence that plague American cities. But it is a start. “We think of the outdoors in terms of recreation and perhaps personal growth,” says Winch. “But it can also be part of the solution to some of our most pressing social problems.”