40 Feet Up, Omaha Teens and Cops Build Bridges

Deandre Santee and Keith Williamson were face to face, wobbling on a wire 40 feet high.

A rope dangling between them was their only hope for balance. They had to communicate and trust each other in order to shuffle safely to the other side.

“You got it, man. I’m just looking at you,” said Williamson, an Omaha Police lieutenant. “Don’t make me laugh!”

After reaching the secure wooden platform, although they were attached with safety wires during the entire trek, the duo high-fived and hugged.

“We had a bond,” said Santee, a Benson High School senior.

This week, officers and Omaha Public School students interacted during a daylong program called Police-Youth Challenge, aimed at defeating stereotypes and connecting as normal people.

Twenty-four officers and 60 kids from Benson, Northwest, North, Central and Blackburn high schools participated in the four-day pilot program with Outward Bound Omaha, to test logistics and see whether the program could exist permanently.

The session is based on a program from the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School, which has had groups of students and officers completing obstacles together since 2008. Following protests of police brutality in 2015, a donor helped expand the program to allow the entire 3,000-officer force to participate, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Lt. John Sokolik said he’s wanted to create a collaborative program since completing the high ropes course on a hot summer day in 2011. When patrolling overnight, he used to shine his cruiser’s lights on the course, dreaming of how to use it to forge positive connections between police and community.

“It’s better to build relationships before something catastrophic happens … than to try to play catch up after something happens that, maybe, trust is broken,” he said.

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