Getting past the uniform

Physical challenges help city kids get to know police as people

December 18, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Fourteen-year-old Brittany Archer stood at the base of a 40-foot climbing wall in Leakin Park and confidently declared, "I'm going all the way up there."

But after watching friend Tre Smith, 14, slip and stumble to the top, the East Baltimore eighth-grader suddenly wasn't so sure. Wearing a harness and helmet, she approached the wall, closed her eyes and put her hands over her face.

"I'm scared!" she squealed repeatedly.

With six Baltimore City police officers cheering her on, Brittany made it to the top, triumphantly rang a bell and rapelled back down, where she was congratulated with a hug from Smith and high-fives from the officers.

Yesterday, 40 officers from the Police Department's Eastern District joined 40 schoolchildren from the community for team-building exercises at the Baltimore Outward Bound Center. The activities were part of a training program that plucks entire shifts of officers out of their districts for 28 days, with an emphasis on communication to improve the department's relationship with the community.

"Who they are and how they carry themselves is vital to how they're perceived," said Adam Walinsky, a consultant who helped develop the training program. "None of this will work overnight, but it's a huge step for the Police Department."

Walinsky, who brought the Police Corps program to Baltimore in the 1990s, devised the curriculum with Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. It is the Baltimore force's longest ever in-service training, part of the commissioner's emphasis on repairing the department's image in the community.

Yesterday, Officer Leighton McDermott gripped a rope and shouted words of encouragement as a young girl, a harness wrapped around her puffy pink winter jacket, attempted to take part in a tight-rope exercise. The children laughed when an officer joked that Officer Jason Hess looked like a pinata after he slipped and dangled in the air.

"They're getting to know us as human beings, and not someone who chases them down an alley," said Officer Howard Smith.

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