Police Academy IX: This Time It’s Interpersonal

by Brad Heckman
December 2014 Brad Heckman

Let’s face it — there’s lots work to be done all over the country to build understanding and heal relationships between civilians and police. This is a stickier topic than I’m smart enough to take on — fraught with issues of race, class, safety, community cohesion — you name it.

But I’m proud to say that in a small way, New York Peace Institute is striving to be part of the solution. A few months ago, we spent four intense days at the Police Academy conducting a mediation training for twenty officers, detectives, sergeants and lieutenants — representing beat cops, school safety officers, housing police, community affairs cops, and more.

The goal was to give a select group of NYPD officers mediation skills for their interactions with civilians, and to encourage them to refer non-arrest disputes to mediation. I thought I’d share a bit about what went down.

NYPD and mediation.

At various levels of the NYPD, we’re seeing a desire to incorporate the principles of mediation into police work. There’s a new-ish high level position at NYPD — Deputy Commissioner of Collaborative Policing, Susan Herman. Commissioner Herman is a longtime victims’ rights advocate (check out her book Parallel Justice). And she was a community mediator back in the day! (Here we are fist-bumping at NYPD’s headquarters.) Also, kudos to NYPD’s Community Affairs Division, which supported our training for the men and women in blue. And then there’s the Civilian Complain Review Board’s mediation program, which allows citizens to mediate their beefs with cops. Our alumna and mediator Lisa Grace Cohen runs that program.

On getting to the Academy.badgeVisitors like me get an ID pass. I was kind of hoping for something more badge-like. On a couple of occasions I got saluted by cadets who amazingly mistook me for NYPD brass. That was cool. I was unsuccessful in implementing this protocol back at the New York Peace Institute office.


I learned a new word! The trainees were voluntold — i.e “highly recommended” — by their supervisors to take our training. In fact, they were hand-picked because of their influence, skills, credibility, and openness to learning new things. That said, they made it clear that they weren’t going to be into a 4-day touchy-feely kumbaya session. And they were naturally perplexed by my transformation of a Police Academy classroom into a bizarro kindergarten class, what with all of my ridiculous drawings. But their curiously and generosity of spirit quickly overtook their skepticism, and they were amazing participants.

The deal with donuts.

I brought donuts to the training, only to be told (good-naturedly) that I was perpetuating a stereotype, and few officers indulged. Which meant more donuts for me. On a possibly related note, one day I saw a whole bunch of donuts on the street right in front of the Academy. (Mmm…street donuts…)

Having a ball.

I did an exercise that involved tossing around a soccer ball with different mediation techniques written on it, and whoever catches it had to demonstrate the skill that their left thumb landed on. You can tell who’s a bona-fide soccer fan by their aversion to catching the ball. (I’ve come to understand that you’re not supposed to touch soccer balls with your hands. Huh.)

The agony of mediating.

No matter one’s profession, one’s first attempt at a simulated mediation make can make one’s head hurt.

And the ecstasy.

And when something actually works, it sure feels good.

On the police in popular culture.

I came to realize how many pop-culture police references we’ve built into our training — note my drawing of Lieutenant Columbo above (our icon for daring to ask dumb questions in mediation), and the cop from the Village People. (Fun fact — not a real cop.) When I asked our participants which, if any, TV shows accurately portray police, the answer was Cops. And apparently sometimes they get it right on Law and Order (which filmed a couple of scenes in our former Manhattan Center. Also, the exterior of our Brooklyn Center has popped up in the show Brooklyn 99 a couple times.)

Cross-over skills and new stuff.

Here we have some officers doing a brainstorming exercise. With any training group, participants come with all kinds of useful tools from their day jobs and life experiences — and undergo at least a bit of re-wiring to unlearn stuff. To wit:

Co-mediation was a natural for these folks. Their nearly telepathic connection with their partners lent itself to working seamlessly and gracefully with a co-mediator.

Caucusing — an individual meeting with each disputant — also made a lot of sense to the trainees. One of the first things they do to de-escalate conflicts is separate the parties. Of course, we talked a lot about turning this from an automatic response into one of many tools.

Going toward the heat in conflict is something both police and mediators are trained to do — though often using different methods. Both professions require fearlessness in the face of anger and high emotion.

On the other hand, like with many mediation newbies, some things were a challenge. Police often need to make instantaneous, sometimes life or death decisions.. De-escalating conflict is something they’re trained to do quickly — without the luxury of taking angry parties through a 9-stage mediation process. So learning how, in mediation, we help slow the conflict down, through reflecting, reframing, highlighting areas of agreement and difference (etc!) — felt counterintuitive. But I’m pleased to say that the cops were able to tweak so many mediation tools into efficient micro-interventions to help de-escalate conflicts in lieu of more drastic measures.

The thing about pens.

Officers at the Police Academy were kind enough to let me store my training gear in their space on one condition: Bring them pens. With black ink. Pens are the coin of the realm among the police. They have to write a lot of stuff down. And I became privy to a tradition in which cops go to great and mischievous lengths to take each other’s pens. I happened to have a box of pens on my training table, in plain sight, the whole four days…and I asked why no one swiped any. The response: Had I done a better job hiding them, they would have gladly accepted the challenge.


Big thanks to all my teammates who helped with this training, including Baiba and Melissa, above (and a whole bunch of others). And big ups to the New York’s Finest who took such a huge leap of faith, went outside their comfort zones, and opened their ears and minds in a big way. I sure learned a lot from them.

Now then. I don’t think mediation training is a panacea (which autocorrected to pancreas…mediation training is also not a pancreas) for the work that needs to be done to improve police-civilian relationships. But I think it will help. I’ll close with two quotes from our new NYPD friends at the end of the training that pretty much summed it up:

“This training will really change the way I”m going to interact with civilians moving forward.”

“Thanks to this training, I had the best conversation with my son that I’ve ever had.”


Brad Heckman is Chief Executive Officer of the New York Peace Institute, one of the nation's largest conflict resolution services.  He's also an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, where he teaches courses on international conflict resolution and organizational development.  His teaching style includes subjecting students to his childlike drawings and arcane pop culture references

Brad previously served as International Director of Partners for Democratic Change, for which he helped build the first community peacebuilding centers in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, South Caucasus, and the former Soviet Union.  He worked extensively with the Roma – commonly known as Gypsy – communities in Eastern Europe, and subsequently made several ill-fated attempts to learn to play Roma music on the accordion.  He was also a Vice President of Safe Horizon, a leading victims services and violence prevention agency.  In that capacity, he oversaw the agency’s Mediation, Families of Homicide Victims, Legal Services, Anti-Trafficking, Batterers Intervention, and Anti-Stalking Programs.  

Brad received a Master of Arts in International Relations and International Economics from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Dickinson College.  He blogs for the New York Peace Institute.

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