Some cities use mediation to aid police

Published 6:42 am Saturday, August 13, 2016

In the face of increased tension between civilian populations and law enforcement, communities around the U.S. are looking for ways to mend relations.

In Bogalusa, community leaders like Michael O’Ree and the mayor have suggested that the police department support community policing — a policy that puts uniformed officers in informal, non-confrontational settings with community members.

The idea is to normalize police as a safe and relatable part of the community and the strategy is used in cities across the country. However, a handful of cities are going further and experimenting with additional programs to restore trust between civilians and police.

The New Orleans Police Department just wrapped up the first year of one such community-police mediation program, a test program that aims to bring together police and their critics for frank, one-on-one conversations.

The mediation program isn’t available to people suspected or accused of crimes but to members of the community who feel a police officer has wronged them. Typically, a community will have a police oversight board but there’s little if any direct communication between the officer and the civilian complainant.

Within most departments, if a civilian makes a complaint against an officer, the department or an oversight board investigates wrongdoing and either disciplines the officer or not.

Allison McCrary, an attorney and the director of the Community-Police Mediation Program in New Orleans, said the mediation program isn’t meant to replace that model but it is meant to be an alternative. It has proven popular among the community members who have used it, and also among the rank-and-file police officers.

This is because, McCrary said, the two sides have more in common than either side might realize.

“It’s about dialog and making a safe space for making people understood,” she said. “It’s by the people and for the people, and the people include the police too. A lot of officers at the bottom of the rank don’t get their voices heard either.”

McCrary said the program is simple. Someone from the community complains about an officer and the two sides sit together in a neutral space like a library room and, with two volunteer mediators, hear each other out.

McCrary said the complaints vary, but they’re not criminal complaints, just complaints of basic rudeness or a lack of empathy.

“Some examples of complaint allegations are related to an officer didn’t add additional information to a police report and couldn’t get a return call from the officer assigned to his case,” McCrary said. “Or an officer takes an hour to respond to a car accident; a street vendor feels targeted by an officer repeatedly asking him for his proof of business license on multiple occasions when the street vendor and his wife are just trying to ‘make ends meet’ and take care of their family; an officer blocked a civilian’s driveway for 45 minutes while conducting a traffic accident investigation (and so on).”

McCrary said the mediation dialogs can get tense.

“Yelling can happen,” she said. “It’s for people to vent, whether it’s for the officer to vent or the civilian to vent.”

The venting, McCrary said, is cathartic. This is because the mediation is voluntary — the officer can refuse for any reason at all — and there is no penalty, fault or blame assigned. In fact, there is no official or unofficial record of what gets said during the sessions. The whole point is only for two people to talk to each other.

At the end of the mediations, participants were asked to fill out an anonymous survey about their experiences. One anonymous New Orleans officer wrote, “We sat down face to face and talked about our perceptions of each other, how she perceived me as a white officer and how I perceived her as a young, black activist, even to the detail of what the symbols on her jewelry make me think of her … Although I was uncomfortable at first, I realized how important it was to her to talk about race and it was eye-opening for me.

“I was able to explain policy and why I acted the way I did and she shared how she felt about how I treated her. Please tell anyone in the community of any officer they can contact me if they want to know more about mediation. This is good for our city.”

The sessions can last anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes and despite whatever bad feelings turn up, McCrary said at the end, the feeling is generally positive. According to a report released last month of the first year, by the time the mediation ended, both sides had reached an agreement, though that wasn’t required.

In the first year, 45 cases were mediated. In a city the size of New Orleans, this is hardly a high number, but McCrary said larger cities have even fewer cases early on.

“It was very much above what we’ve seen in other cities,” she said, pointing to the New York City program. “There first year only had two mediations and their second year, four mediations and the third year, 10 mediations. … We anticipate it to grow as more people trust in the program.”

The goal of the program isn’t just to resolve personal conflicts, but to show communities that distrust the police that the police are people, too, willing to talk and meet face to face. The program is also aimed at helping police officers better understand the concerns of the community.

Of course, like any other single program, McCrary said a mediation program won’t mend deep rifts on its own.

“This is one piece of it,” she said. “Mediation isn’t going to address every interaction with an officer.”

She said not every officer agrees to the process and not every civilian will come forward with their complaints.

“But it is a first step and there’s a ripple effect that can be felt in the community,” she said.

Closer to home, McCrary said she would like to see this spread to other communities in Louisiana, including smaller cities, like Bogalusa. It took three years to establish the New Orleans program, but she said now that it is up and running, she invites other communities to build their own models.

“It’s easily replicable,” she said. There are professionally trained mediators in various cities and we can come and do specialized training.”

The New Orleans program operates through an administrative grant, but it’s also dependent on community volunteers who serve as the backbone of the mediation sessions.

McCrary was clear that the mediation program isn’t a magic bullet.

“There are other processes that we find helpful to help restore and improve relationships between the police and the community,” she said.