A Baltimore nonprofit is looking to build bridges and repair trust between police officers and youth in order to reduce violence in the city.
Project Pneuma, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization, aims to improve the strained relationship between boys and police officers by organizing events such as fitness competitions and academy visits that give kids exposure to police officers.
The nonprofit coordinates with Baltimore City Public schools to offer opportunities for self-growth to young Black males in grades four to eight.
According to the group’s website, “Project Pneuma starts by preparing the boys to develop social-emotional skills. We provide academic support, martial arts, yoga, and mindfulness.”
The founder of the organization and CEO of Project Pneuma Damion Cooper hopes that through such activities, they can foster understanding between police officers and young boys while making the kids feel more comfortable approaching law enforcement.
“They’re building trust …” Cooper stated. “While police officers are in the academy, they are learning about the young boys, and the boys learn about them and their backgrounds. When they graduate, trust is built … So when things do happen, they know one another.”
According to recent polls, Americans’ confidence in law enforcement has declined in recent years. For instance, a February Washington Post-ABC poll found that only 39% of adults surveyed were confident that the police were adequately trained to use excessive force.
Cooper, a former director of neighborhood relations with the Baltimore City Council, witnessed the growing tension between the community and police and decided to become part of the solution.
“There was always this us against them mentality,” Cooper said. “I got tired of it. I was like, ‘You know what? Let me be part of the solution.’”
After receiving a grant, Cooper launched Project Pneuma to help prevent boys from joining violent gangs and to improve their mental health. The organization selected boys in grades four to eight as this age group and gender were identified as particularly vulnerable.
The group’s activities not only connect the boys with police officers but also provide opportunities for the kids to engage in activities like yoga, which helps them process their emotions in a positive environment. Project Pneuma also provides therapists for the boys to talk with.
Recently, the nonprofit held a fitness challenge at Under Armour’s headquarters that brought together 20 Baltimore police trainees and around 40 boys in the program.
“Oftentimes, these young men don’t get these experiences,” Cooper added. “There will be no sirens. There will be no gunshots.”
Candace King, whose son participates in Project Pneuma programs, stated: “When you dissolve the bias and you just see [police officers] as people, it’s much easier to get to know officers … and for kids, it’s easier to see officers as, ‘oh, this person, I know this person.’”
“They’re going to see them on the street one day, and they’re going to be able to go to them, say, ‘Hey, that’s officer so-and-so,’” King continued.
By building relationships between boys and police officers, Cooper hopes that the boys will be more willing to cooperate with law enforcement in the event of a crime and that officers will respect the boys and not treat them as potential criminals.
Baltimore Police Officer Rhaei Brown, who participates in Project Pneuma, is hopeful that the program will reduce violence.
“I don’t want the fate that I’ve seen for some of the kids in Baltimore and some of the scenes that I’ve been on to happen to any of these kids in Project Pneuma,” Officer Brown said. “I try to be consistent and build these relationships with these boys because it will make a difference.”
According to Baltimore Police Department data, fatal shootings involving kids have been on the rise since 2014. So far this year, five children under the age of 18 have been killed, and 23 have been wounded due to gunfire.