If Capt. Larry Nodiff had his way, the DVD in his hand would be required viewing for every recruit and officer in the 6,600-member Philadelphia Police Department.

It's not a how-to film on the proper use of force. It's a three-minute summary of a Mural Arts Program project helping cops and kids get to know each other.

Nodiff, a 34-year veteran who commands the busy 23d District near Temple University, realizes hardened colleagues might scoff at a touchy-feely experience that includes writing poems and tackling stereotypes. But if understanding how teenagers think keeps street-corner encounters from turning deadly, why not try?

"I can't speak for the commissioner, but to me, this has to be incorporated into our training," Nodiff told Anne Harrison, the Mural Arts staffer who coordinates "Cops & Kids: Turning The Corner."

Nodiff was so intrigued by what he saw in his role-call room last week, he may even sign up.

"I would like to have seen the kids role-playing at being cops," he said, suggesting a way to improve the experience. "When the kids say, 'Take your hands out of your pockets!' see how the cops react."

Harrison didn't expect such enthusiasm from a high-ranking commander, but then again, much of what's happened with "Cops & Kids" has been a surprise.

Cutting the safety net

I wanted to leave after the tongue twisters. Watching 10 juvenile offenders and a couple of cops play games hardly seemed like it would bring down the murder rate.

That was December, at one of the early sessions of "Cops & Kids," an offshoot of the Adolescent Violence Reduction Partnership that involved 50 people citywide this year.

Harrison assured me the goofiness had a purpose. "Cops & Kids" aims to build genuine relationships between people who, traditionally, fear and distrust each other. You've got to start somewhere.

She was right: By night's end, everyone was more relaxed.

And over many months, Harrison explained, "they learn they have a lot more in common than any of them thought."

Anthony Clegg, an 18-year-old participant arrested for selling drugs, didn't dodge when I asked about his mind-set at the start.

"I didn't like cops," he said. "I had a lot of encounters, all of them negative."

Clegg was required to attend, but also open-minded: "I wanted to see what it would be like to have a conversation when they were not trying to lock me up."

That chat included Sgt. Jose Acevedo, an 18-year police veteran who eventually admitted he viewed "young men in baggy pants" as suspiciously as they, him.

"We all had stereotypes we were using as a safety net," said Acevedo, of the 22d District. And with 392 homicides in 2007, and 134 already this year, how well was that net protecting any of them?

Role reversal

Oddly, once the sessions became more personal, the teens who accused police of being too aggressive told officers they'd probably be just as tough.

"During one skit about a crime stop, we asked the kids what they would do," Acevedo recalled. "They said, 'Shoot him!' "

Clegg agreed, minus the desire to fire. "The police have to come across to us as mean," he said, "because they worry about their safety as much as we do ours."

In between all this emoting, the cops and kids worked with muralist Cesar Viveros on how to best translate the rapport they developed into wall art that tells a story.

"The police wanted more symbols of patriotism," Harrison said, "flags and badges." A winged boy represents "hope and power."

The final design, hashed out in community meetings, will be painted on the police building at 17th and Montgomery Streets in North Philadelphia later this summer.

As the program expands over the next four years, incorporating more street cops, teen offenders and kids who've never been in trouble, the results may be hard to measure.

How do you claim success if success is an arrest unmade, a trigger not pulled, a car stop in which no one is beaten, no complaint lodged, no lawsuit filed?

The police have no answers, though Nodiff and fellow Capt. Branville Bard, of the 22d District, believe the impact will be felt on corners by police and teens who see each other as "people" and react accordingly.

Bard is reminded of advice he gives rookies: "You have to remember you're meeting a lot of good people, but you're meeting them at the worst time."

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.