Baltimore City Police Officer Wanda S. Alston, center, who graduated from Edmondson High School, argues about who went to the best high school with, from left, current Digital Harbor High School junior Larry Alexander, 18, City College High School senior Desmond Campbell, 18, Baltimore City Police Detective James "J.R." Ryan, Cheo Thomas, 18, an 2014 graduate of Edmondson High School and Edmondson High School junior, Dayonna Tunstall, 17. (J.M. Eddins, Jr./For The Washington Post)

Black teenagers, from high schools scattered around the city, are among many drawn to the Inner Harbor on warm days to enjoy the waterfront tourist spot.

But for them, the visits had become less about shops, restaurants and meeting friends, and more a symbol of their uneasy relationship with police. They felt singled out for scrutiny, confronted and sometimes unfairly evicted in what they viewed as a form of collective punishment for the rowdy actions of a few.

“Honestly, before, I really hated the police,” said Kamiryn Baylor, 16. “I felt like we were labeled.”

The Patterson High School student is now part of a program called the Inner Harbor Project that is intended to help police and teens understand one another. The effort started three years ago, before the tumult that erupted last year with the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., though that incident gave the group’s work new urgency amid the ensuing national debate over police tactics and community relations.

On Thursday, Baylor and about a dozen other teens met with just as many Baltimore police officers to overcome divisions. The evening was more about what they shared — the officers also were city high school grads, emphasizing a common background and experiences.

Baltimore City Police Lt. Steven Olson, right, talks with Adrian Hughes, 18, a graduate of Edmondson High School in Baltimore, Md., who does cultural competency training with The Inner Harbor Project. (J.M. Eddins, Jr./For The Washington Post)

Similar efforts are going on in big cities and small towns across the country as police take a new look at how their officers engage the citizenry, aiming to have officers rely on relationships instead of a show of force when things turn tense. Police shootings and other confrontations, such as the violent arrest recently of a University of Virginia student who had been turned away at a bar, are drawing increased scrutiny.

Last week, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, speaking at a town-hall meeting on Ferguson, urged departments to incorporate empathy and stop teaching new officers that “everyone is trying to kill you.” And D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced a plan to try to keep street violence from escalating by flooding a neighborhood with city services after a shooting or other violent act that police believe could lead to retaliation.

The Baltimore experiment has already had an impact. Youths descending on the harbor had once instinctively put Baltimore police on high alert. “Hold our ground,” was the operative saying, said Lt. James Rhoden, a veteran of 23 years. Now, he said, the marching orders for police are to “make them part of the community.”

Diamonta Boyd, 17, who attends the Knowledge and Success Academy, said that now he even talks with officers he sees in his own rough West Baltimore neighborhood. “I don’t have a bad feeling about police,” he said. “I feel we better connect.”

Baltimore has long struggled with violent crime, and despite a drop in homicides in recent years, the city remains per capita one of the nation’s deadliest. Its police commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, said community involvement got lost amid the tough crime fight. When he arrived from California in 2012, he said, “I could feel the tension.”

Batts made gangs a priority and, like an Old West sheriff, publicly branded high-profile suspects “Public Enemy No. 1.” But the commissioner also embarked on another crusade — ordering officers out of their cars to walk their beats, to engage residents, to mentor children. “Policing is not just about criminal justice,” he said in an interview. “It’s also about social justice.”

Batts, who is African American, is now provoking a difficult discussion about race and crime in his adopted city. In February, speaking on a White House panel in Phoenix, he said, “When I go to Baltimore, on the East Coast, I’m dealing with 1950s-level black-and-white racism. . . . Everything’s either black or everything’s white.”

Baltimore City Police Lt. James Rhoden, right, talks about police relations with African-American youth around the Inner Harbor as Shawnna Oram, 17, left, a senior at Woodlawn High School who works on The Inner Harbor Projects' Code of Etiquette, and Baltimore City Police Detective Dave Jones Jr., center, listen. (J.M. Eddins, Jr./for The Washington Post)

The commissioner’s remarks were streamed live over the Internet and captured by the Baltimore Sun. Two weeks later, Batts expanded on his thoughts on C-Span, saying going to Baltimore is “like going back in time.” He said in the interview that an honest conversation about race is necessary in both the struggle against crime and for police to win the community’s trust. Baltimore’s neighborhoods largely remain segregated, with more-affluent white areas and often impoverished black ones, he said, leading to distrust “that becomes rage.” He added, “That rage leads to people killing each other.”

Said the commissioner, “I’m not trying to build social workers. I’m trying to build community police officers who can defuse situations without escalating them. We don’t want a Ferguson here.”

Early in his tenure in Baltimore, Batts challenged both officers and teens to list the top five things they expect of each other. Teens wanted police to “act like adults.” A 30-year veteran officer assigned to the Inner Harbor wanted “respect.”

Even in cities that have escaped ­Ferguson-like unrest, there remains an undercurrent of tension. Protesters have denounced in-custody deaths in Baltimore, and the DCFerguson movement is collecting testimony in Washington about the practice called “jump-outs” — plainclothes police leaping from unmarked cars and detaining youths and others, a tactic police deny is still practiced.

And police need to be on alert for violent confrontations involving youth. A shooting orchestrated on social media marred events at the National Zoo in Washington on the Monday after Easter last year. And Baltimore has had several issues over the years with teens numbering in the hundreds flocking to the harbor. In years past, Inner Harbor merchants locked their doors to keep young people from the pavilions. After a disturbance on St. Patrick’s Day 2012, when hundreds of youths from the city’s east and west sides clashed in more than a dozen fights, a state delegate referred to “black youth mobs” and called on the state police to declare the harbor a “no-travel zone” until order was restored.

The Inner Harbor Project was launched a few months later by Celia Neustadt, a 2008 graduate of Baltimore City College high school, where she was one of four white students in a class of about 400. Begun as a way to spark conversation, the group is now leading it. Hood2Harbor peace ambassadors blend in with crowds to watch for trouble. In the coming months, these high school students will teach recruits at the police academy how to talk to young people. Teens monitor social media to defuse disputes before combatants end up at the harbor.

“If I were like a cop, they wouldn’t listen,” said Cheo Thomas, 18, who graduated from Edmondson-Westside High School last year and now mediates disputes among youths that crop up on social media. He said the teens do listen. “It’s us talking to them,” he said,

During last week’s meeting, students and police gathered at Lexington Market, a maze of covered food stalls on the west side of downtown, where they gazed at a bulletin board covered with photos of themselves next to pictures of police officers when they attended Baltimore high schools. They agreed the atmosphere at the harbor has become more welcoming.

“We were once students like yourselves,” said Lt. Steven Olson, who heads the Inner Harbor unit.

He said his fellow officers used to refer to youth coming to the harbor as “those kids.” He told the group, “I started watching ‘those kids.’ Instead of confronting them, I talked to them.”

He saw young couples holding hands, splurging on food, just hanging out. “Those kids were awesome,” Olson said. He learned many came to escape their own dangerous neighborhoods. “They come to the harbor because it is safe.”

Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.