Street tensions turn to trust as police and teens test wilderness skills together

James Adams is 240 pounds of solid cop. Charles, Lucky, and Isreal are inner-city teen-agers -- rambunctious and alert.

If there was any distance between the policeman and the youths, it was bridged in an instant last week when Officer Adams stood on a five-foot tree stump and fell trustingly backward into the arms of these teens and several of their Sunshine High School classmates.

Wide eyes and gasps of disbelief signaled the success of the group's first joint venture as the large policeman sliced through the air and bounced safely in their arms.

This ``trust fall'' exercise was only the beginning of the San Francisco Police Department's Wilderness Adventure Program. By day's end students, teachers, and police had cheered and coaxed one another through trapeze-hanging, ring-swinging, tightrope-walking, and perch-balancing -- all at 30 feet in the air.

The day on the ``ropes course'' was the great equalizer: for example, student Lucky Harris spent 20 minutes on a perch 30 feet high before finding courage to stand up and jump to a trapeze hanging five feet away, while neither Officer Adams nor his colleague, Officer Herb Jones, would try the feat. But Elizabeth Looney, a math and science teacher, did it with good balance and little procrastination. All participants are belayed, but the perception of risk is high.

The ropes course was built under a canopy of pines in the Golden Gate Recreation Area by Wayne MacDonald and his students in the Urban Pioneer program at McAteer High School. He and his students also run the course, which is the ice-breaker for the the police Wilderness Adventure Program's five-day backpacking trip. Starting Monday, Adams, a Officer Jones, and two Sunshine High School teachers will lead about a dozen students into Los Padres National Forest for five days.

More than 3,000 San Francisco teen-agers and 200 police officers have been through the ropes course and back-packing trip since 1981, says Walter Scott, the San Francisco police officer who founded and directs the wilderness program.

The popularity and success of the program has won it important funding from the Police Officers Association ($20,000) and the Yosemite Institute ($25,000) -- and police departments in Denver and Pasadena, Calif., have modeled programs after San Francisco's.

While a variety of students go through the program, says Officer Scott, the aim is to smooth relations between police and inner-city youth, who tend to meet each other frequently on the streets of tougher neighborhoods.

``The typical encounter is no encounter,'' Scott says of the relations between police and youth. ``They'll stare at each other, suspiciously . . . or intimidatingly.''

Scott's program aims to ``make them see each other as human beings,'' he says. Byproducts of the program, he says, are that students end up getting along better with each other, learning more about themselves, and getting a chance, often for the first time, to leave the city.

Program directors consider the ropes course a metaphor for the challenges of everyday life. McDonald says the idea is to develop the pattern for students to handle those challenges rather than run away from them.

Suspicions between police and youth at first are mutual, because ``the nature of our jobs is to be looking for problems,'' says Scott. ``Officers wonder what it'll be like. . . . They want to know if the kids are going to bring weapons or if they'll want to cooperate. . . .''

Isreal Morales, a junior who says he was once arrested for painting his name on a wall in the Mission District, was slightly suspicious.

``We're having a lot of fun here, and you can get along with the police. . . . They're being cool here,'' he admits. But, he adds that he has felt harassed by police and is still suspicious of police back in his Mission District neighborhood.

Adams sympathizes, noting that growing up as a black in the upper-middle-class Pacific Heights area, he was frequently targeted by police as a suspect in purse snatchings. ``There is persecution, it's real,'' admits Adams. ``But we're not all tough guys, all spit and polish. I come in contact with a lot of kids, and I like to tell them not to be scared of us.''

When relations break down over minor details, the group has to learn to solve the problems, says Jim Dierke, director of special education at Washington High School. All food is rationed to last the whole trip, but Mr. Dierke recalls the time that one student ate the group's entire peanut butter ration. ``One student was ready to beat him up,'' he says. Instead, group sensibility prevailed, and it was decided to retaliate by secretly weighting the offender's pack with some rocks.

Dierke also recalls one ``little toughie,'' who decided 12 miles into the mountains that he had to call his mother because ``she'd be worried about him.''

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