Mediation Training to Improve Police Social Interaction Skills

The February shooting death of an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, in
hail of 41 bullets fired by four white New York City Police (NYPD) has focused attention on
mistreatment of people of color by police not only in New York but throughout the United States.
The shooting prompted daily protests in front of NYPD headquarters at which more than 1000
people were arrested. Although the protests ended when the officers were indicted for second
degree murder in late March, attention on the shooting has not ceded. The Attorney General for
the state of New York and the United States Commission on Civil Rights are conducting an
inquiry of the Diallo tragedy and the many complaints of racially motivated policing by New York
City Police officers.

The Diallo tragedy has spawned a variety of NYPD initiatives to prevent a similar
re-occurrence. These include efforts to recruit African-Americans and Latinos into NYC Police
ranks and the naming of an African-American to head the specialized police unit to which the four
officers who shot Diallo belonged. Another initiative is of interest to dispute resolution
professionals; that of providing officers with wallet-size, palm cards which instruct them to
behave politely. For example, the cards urge officers to say hello, please, thank you, sir and
ma’am among other socially acceptable terms. The palm cards go on further to urge cops to
“Respect each individual, his or her cultural identity, customs and beliefs.” (New York Times,
April 17, 1999, p.A1) Not long after the issuance of the cards, the NYPD will print and distribute,
to civilians, a 24-page booklet/brochure entitled “Your Rights and Responsibilities When
Interacting with the Police
.” Both the palm cards and brochures are in response to the Diallo
tragedy– a fiery shooting that has turned attention to social interaction skills of police officers.(1)

Many argue that the negative effects of “zero-tolerance policing” in New York City
explain the Diallo tragedy. NYPD officers targeted minorities for no other reason than their skin
complexion and/or ethnicity. Notwithstanding this phenomenon’s negatives, that some police
officers need to be told that “please,” “thank you,” “sir,” and “ma’am” are appropriate salutations
for social interaction is what many, including police department insiders, say has
fueled marked poor citizen-police relations in New York.(2) In an April 19, 1999 New York Times
editorial, the NYPD police commissioner implied that many New Yorkers who have had negative
interactions with the police point to a lack of civility exhibited by the officer.

Role for Dispute Resolution

Dispute resolution professionals can help alleviate the problem of negative police-citizen
interaction where the officer’s social skills are at fault. This can be done provided that an officer
does not have other serious shortcomings (i.e., harbors racist views or employs a “John Wayne”
style of policing).

At a minimum, dispute resolution professionals can administer social interaction training
workshops to patrol police officers. Training of this type would incorporate mediation skills such
as use of “I” messages, introspection, active listening, and cognizance of one’s own body
language.

I train patrol police officers not only in mediation skills but, also to become mediators.
After all, patrol police officers encounter countless interpersonal disputes. Handling these
disputes requires social interaction expertise on the part of the police officer. Notwithstanding
that, etiquette, diversity, and sensitivity training absolutely contribute to this expertise, let us
consider the potential contribution of mediation training.

There is distinction between a patrol police officer receiving training that enables him/her
to refer a dispute to a mediation center and a police officer receiving training which will enable
him/her to function as a mediator. The latter training will best insure that the officer is given skills
to reduce the likelihood that a call-for-service/scene will escalate. These interpersonal social skills
will help an officer interact with disputants in such a way that the situation does not become
worse (e.g., violent) because of actions by the officer (i.e., via an officer’s poor body language).
In this way, it is less likely that someone (citizen or officer) is injured or dissatisfied with the
police response.

Relation to Community Policing

Consider that community policing champions citizen empowerment. It attempts to do
away with notions that the police are an occupying army and that citizens have little say in the
policing of their communities. New York City’s troubles, as well as other jurisdictions, are in
many ways rooted in the police department’s unwillingness to tap communities as resources in
maintaining order. If patrol police officers interact with citizens using mediation skills and address
interpersonal disputes (which are amenable to mediation) using mediation, many of the objectives
of community policing are realized. Mediation skills, because of their politeness characteristics
promote professional and positive social interaction. In handling interpersonal dispute scenes with
mediation, police officers/mediators provide a problem solving process in which they empower
citizens. Through the transference of decision making power, the officer is conveying deference
and offering the self-responsibility and freedom that citizens rightfully expect to exercise in their
lives. This translates to police deference for members of a community participating in watching
over their own community. For this reason, use of mediation by patrol officers should be seen as
a requisite component of community policing initiatives, since both seek to foster positive police-community relations, empower citizens, show deference to citizens, and reduce confrontations
between police officers and citizens.

Whether it is New York City or Kansas City, I believe that as we enter into a new
millennium, police training needs to be taken to the next level—this means training police officers
not just in mediation skills but certifying them as mediators. If a police department decides
against having its officers trained as mediators, it should at least allow its officers to receive
mediation skills training. Either way, the adaptation into patrol police work of the conflict
resolution methodology known as mediation can contribute to improved police-citizen interaction.

I use the word “contribute” rather than “change”, since so many other changes are
necessary (e.g., more police departments must become racially representative of the communities
that they serve and racially based profile stops must cease) for significant improvement to occur in
American police-citizen interaction. But dispute resolution training will be an important step in
improving policing.

1. 1.Additionally, there are indicators that the NYPD will require officers to undergo sensitivity and
racial diversity training.

2. 2. New York’s mayor has argued that police mistreatment of black and Hispanic/Latino citizens is
not widespread in New York City. He points to statistics that show that NYPD officers fire their
weapons less than officers in other cities. Perhaps it is worth noting that mistreatment comes in
many forms, sometimes physical and sometimes non-physical (as in an unlawful stop and frisk or a
discourteous police response as in offensive remarks).While many officers possess social
interaction shortcomings, the author calls attention to many NYPD officers who exhibit the
utmost of professionalism and extend the highest level courtesy to citizens.

                        author

Christopher C. Cooper

DR. Christopher C. Cooper is a New York City native, a former Washington D.C. (Metropolitan) Police Officer and United States Marine Sergeant (2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and Iraq War veteran).  Presently, he is a Civil Rights Attorney & Ph.D. based in Chicago. A 1987 Graduate of the City University of New… MORE >

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