The future of policing must incorporate mediation. No other profession places its practitioners more in the middle of challenging situations; police officers are regularly expected to make difficult conversations work on the spot. At first blush, it may appear as though police mediation is an oxymoron, that policing and mediation are untenable.1 And, in fact a strong case can be made that this is true. However, despite all of the challenges and as strange as it may seem, an equally compelling case can be made that there is a natural fit with each other.
There is no question that policing is one of the most challenging contexts for mediation. Nonetheless, mediation holds much promise for changing the conversation about police community relations.
Strained police community relations
The strained police community relations that have dominated the news of late illustrates what sociologist C. Wright Mills referred to as the translation of private troubles into public issues.2 For some communities, the strained relationships have been the norm and a long standing fact of life. What is new and becoming far more common, however, is the revelation of tragic situations that are captured by cell phone or other video devices and shared in an unprecedented way. Digital devices are being used as contemporary means of bearing witness to situations where contradictory versions of what transpired emerge. These devices are becoming the trusted surrogate for the trust otherwise placed in the official police version of interactions. Had the cameras not been present, the situations would have remained personal matters and likely gone completely unnoticed by the larger society.
Many of the proposed solutions to improve police-community relations focus on building rapport and trust between the police and members of the local communities they protect. Certainly there has been no shortage of suggestions on how to do so. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing3 , which recently issued its interim report on ways to enhance police-community relations, has amassed a comprehensive list of remedies. These include recruitment, training, uniforms, equipment, police practices, communication technology, reporting systems, civilian oversight, body worn cameras, social media, policies regarding use of force, evidence based practices, to name a few.
Mediation does not appear on the list of recommendations in the aforementioned volume or any of the other reports issuing recommendations for enhancing police community relations. Yet, if we listen carefully to what is being asked for, mediation should not only be there, but should be very high on the list. Just saying that the police and community should get along with each other in a spirit of trust seldom is enough to overcome a strained history.
Mediation-Like Policing in the Past
Historically, police work has always involved interventions where officers have been in the middle of a variety of situations that involved the use of mediative tactics and skills to manage “difficult conversations.” Those officers who felt comfortable playing a mediator-like role routinely did so quite naturally, usually by using their intuition and without specific mediation training. They used skills like active listening that are beneficial in establishing communication, building rapport, defusing emotions, collecting information, and perhaps helping the parties to move on.
Mediators would recognize the techniques and skills used by police officers even though the police role in the middle is markedly different from that conventionally undertaken by mediators today. Police operate within a hierarchical, quasi militaristic organizational structure and are authorized to use force, even deadly force, to compel parties to comply with their directives. They are routinely expected to make crucial decisions that can adversely impact the people involved. And, they are required to prepare official reports documenting their interventions, many of which occur in public spaces. Moreover, an essential component of their responses efforts is to contain and control the situations they handle.
All of the aforementioned collide with mediation, especially since some of the decisions that have to be made are instantaneous and of a life and death nature. Police officers handle some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and are often left with few or no options to contain and control the situation by any means necessary. Yet, we cannot lose sight of what mediation has to offer policing. There are many times when the choice to use a mediative approach, especially if the skills were actively and systematically taught and encouraged in appropriate circumstances, could reduce not only the strains of police work, but also the costs to the community. The police would have a broader and deeper repertoire of skills with which to do their work.
With the growing emphasis on strengthening rapport between police and the community, mediation is a near perfect process, particularly for community policing. 4 Mediation training provides the kind of skills and techniques to engage parties to talk. Included are a variety of good communication skills and techniques including active listening, paraphrasing, summarizing, brainstorming, framing issues, reflecting, use of I messages, non-verbal communication, types of questions, etc. There are other techniques and skills common to mediation that are applicable and useful to police work, including the use of caucus sessions, bias awareness, how to handle power imbalances, keeping an open mind, handling emotions, dealing with impasse, ethical issues, and bringing sessions to closure. 5 Many of these topics have certainly been offered in police training and police officers often use many of them intuitively in their daily work with civilians.
What the mediation toolbox would add to police work is a process context that helps interveners shape the interaction with others more deliberately. It goes without saying that police work can be daunting and split second decisions are part of the everyday work. However, a large part of this work involves interacting with civilians. Knowing how to engage a process by using guidelines for respectful discourse may better encourage parties to share their concerns, explore options and perhaps walk away with a better understanding of what transpired and why.
While there is a dearth of research to date on police as trained mediators, there is anecdotal evidence from the growing number of officers who have been trained in mediation programs and academic coursework that they feel better prepared to engage the public and more confident in their interactions. However, for this kind of approach to be in place when it is needed, it requires prior commitment, preparation and training.
Additional changes needed for the new Mediation landscape
For mediation to work in policing, two additional changes are needed. First, police organizations have to reconsider performance measures. Focus on arrests, summons, clearance rates and other metrics currently used to evaluate police work does not serve as an incentive for officers to use mediation. New measures will have to be created to address mediation related work, such as citizen satisfaction, defusing conflict situations, helping citizens to share their perspectives, collaborative problem solving, etc.
The second change would involve preparing the public to accept a different type of policing. When police approach situations as mediators, they would step out of the more traditional role of decision makers and expect citizens to work with them.
Beyond mediation on the scene
When police officers cannot mediate situations themselves, they can refer the cases to qualified mediators or mediation centers. To date, the referrals are often to community mediation programs. The challenge remains to identify and assist those police departments that do not have referral resources. Perhaps the future can include mediation experts on staff or on call to be available as needed. Those mediation experts on staff could provide a wide range of other mediation related services including in-service training, follow-up on referrals to mediation, and liaisons with communities.
There is a growing presence of mediation programs handling civilian complaints against the police. In these mediation sessions, civilians and police have an opportunity to discuss what happened, how each perceived it, clarify any miscommunications and misunderstandings, and move on with a better understanding of what occurred. And, in some instances, the building of trust between the police and civilians is an unintended consequence.
Restorative justice, a mediation related approach, is also a part of mediation’s future as officers assume roles both as participants and in some contexts as leaders of restorative circles. Victims, offenders, members of the community and officers participate in conversations to address the harms that have occurred as a result of crimes, the feelings about what occurred and how to hold the offenders accountable.
With the emphasis on dialogue between police and members of the community, the police can draw on the larger mediation community to help them create safe, respectful spaces for dialogues with civilians.
Mediation adds value to policing
Like many other interventions, mediation is not a panacea since there are countless social, structural, political and economic conditions that interfere with fostering more trusting police community relations. Additionally, mediation is unacceptable for police officers to use in response to many situations they are asked to address on the scene. For instance, high on the list have been domestic violence related incidents.
Despite its limitations, mediation is increasingly recognized as a valuable component of the police toolbox. It is exactly the kind of process that will assist police and communities to improve their relationships. Of particular note for mediators, the integration of mediation into the future of policing creates an opportunity for mediators to play a role in bridging the divide and re-imagining police-community relations.
1 Maria R. Volpe (2014). “Police and Mediation: Natural, Unimaginable or Both.” In J.M. Fritz, Moving Toward a Just Peace, New York: Springer, 91-105.
2 C. Wright Mills (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
3 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. (2015). Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
5 For example, see the Mediation Training Curriculum Guidelines, NYS Unified Court System, Division Of Professional And Court Services Office Of Alternative Dispute Resolution https://www.nycourts.gov/ip/adr/Part146_Curriculum.pdf