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Civilians Versus Police:
Mediation Can Help to
Bridge the Divide
The increasing frequency of notorious cases of conflicts between
police officers and members of the general public (which in New
York City has led to incidents of death, battery, and sexual
assault) is cause for alarm. At the root of many police-community
conflicts are an incomplete understanding of the work of the
police, poor communication on the part of the police and the
public, or simple misunderstanding. A number of communities,
including New York City, are turning to mediation to provide
a forum for the potential resolution of complaints made against
police by citizens. After a brief survey of the work of such
programs nationally, the author focuses on three New York cases
in which she served as a mediator; using them to illustrate the
pitfalls and special rewards of mediating in this context. The
author believes that the mediation process itself can work in
a transformative way, improving strained relations between police
and the general population.
he increasing frequency of notorious cases of conflicts
between police officers and members of the general public (which
in New York City has led to incidents of death, battery, and sexual
assault) is cause for alarm. At the root of many police-community
conflicts are an incomplete understanding of the work of the police,
poor communication on the part of the police and the public, or
simple misunderstanding. A number of communities, including New
York City, are turning to mediation to provide a forum for the
potential resolution of complaints made against police by citizens.
After a brief survey of the work of such programs nationally, the
author focuses on three New York cases in which she served as a
mediator; using them to illustrate the pitfalls and special rewards
of mediating in this context. The author believes that the mediation
process itself can work in a transformative way, improving strained
relations between police and the general population.
Hardly a week goes by that we do not hear alarming news reports
about the alleged use of excessive force by police officers. New
Yorkers were shaken in February 1999 by the shooting death of Amadou
Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant mowed down in a fusillade
of bullets fired by four plain-clothes policemen. [FN1] Memories
had not yet faded of the August 1997 incident, in which other members
of "New York's finest" battered and sodomized a Haitian
man, Abner Louima. [FN2]
Such events are not, of course, confined to New York. In another
notorious instance, in April 1997, the police beating of Gregory
Bell, a nineteen-year-old retarded youth who had accidentally triggered
his home burglar alarm, angered residents of St. Louis. [FN3] And
who in this country has not heard of the Rodney King assault in
Los Angeles in March 1991?
These shocking cases made national headlines. But every day, below
the media's radar screen, less dramatic yet nonetheless troubling
encounters occur between the police and members of the public.
For example, an officer may abuse his authority by threatening
to issue an unwarranted summons. Or he may behave rudely, calling
a citizen's question "stupid," cursing at her, or — worse
— using racial or ethnic slurs. At times, too, the officer's
conduct, although defensible, is misunderstood. The target might
be unaware of relevant facts or ignorant of the governing law;
alternatively, the officer may be acting on the basis of wrong
In the most populous urban areas, aggrieved persons usually have
the option to file a complaint with a citizen review board. [FN4] Frequently,
however, the process will simply frustrate the citizen. Investigations
can take months — or even years; many agencies are understaffed
and underfunded. [FN5] Complainants
may not be kept informed of the progress of their cases; and what
they do learn may, more often than not, displease them. In New
York City, which is not atypical, recent statistics indicate that
the Civilian Complaint Review Board (or the CCRB) has substantiated
a mere 5 percent of the charges filed with the agency. [FN6] In
addition, the Police Department need not accept the Review Board's
findings: only 1.5 percent of the cases referred by the CCRB resulted
in discipline for the officer. [FN7]
Yet studies have shown that complainants are not, on the whole,
very punitive; few want to see the officer fired. Many citizens
desire no more than an in-person confrontation — an explanation
or an apology, a chance to express their views to the officer (Walker
and Archbold 2000: 13-14). In these circumstances, mediation leaps
to mind as a better dispute resolution process than conciliation
or investigation leading to findings. (Conciliation, which aims
to instruct police on appropriate conduct, does not entail a face-to-face
meeting with the complainant! [FN8])
It takes "two to tango," however: the fact that civilians
desire what mediation offers does not ensure that officers will
embrace the process. Professor Jerome Skolnick's description of
the "[p]oliceman's 'working personality" [FN9] outlines
certain traits that might make officers less amenable to mediation — or,
at least, more reluctant to try it —
than most civilians. Adjectives often employed to describe the
police include: suspicious, cynical, secretive, prejudiced, isolated,
conventional, aggressive, domineering and authoritarian (see Yarmey
1990: 30 and 38). Efforts to implement community policing, a problem-oriented
strategy stressing interaction with the public and helping neighborhoods
help themselves to combat crime, [FN10] have
often encountered dismissive attitudes or downright hostility.
Traditional cops have little use for what they regard as "'social
work'" and "are skeptical about notions like 'coaching'
and 'empowerment'" (Skogan and Hartnett 1997: 12 and 73) that
lie at the heart of mediation.
That being said, no stereotype holds true in every case. One authority
(Yarmey 1990: 42) concludes that there is no monolithic "typical
police personality," which displays characteristics that are
"constant across time and space." Professor Skolnick,
after all, developed the "working personality" concept
over thirty years ago. To the extent that community policing and
higher education requirements have taken hold in police departments,
more officers exhibit openness to new ideas — including improved
modes of communication with the public. [FN11] Indeed,
many police departments now train their personnel in mediation
and other conflict resolution techniques. It was, thus, only a
matter of time until civilian oversight authorities began to experiment
with mediation as a tool for handling disputes between police and
members of the public. In New York City, the CCRB did so in 1997;
I have served as a mediator since the inception of the program. [FN12] This
essay, drawing heavily on my work the past three years, focuses
on the challenge — the particular pitfalls and special rewards
— of mediating in this context. In my opinion, such mediation
offers a unique opportunity to improve strained relations between
the public and the police. But before discussing some of my experiences,
I shall present a brief overview of the current status of police-citizen
mediation in the United States in general and, specifically, in
New York City.
Citizen-Police Mediation Programs
As of this writing, no published research exists on citizen-police
mediation programs in this country. Professor Samuel Walker is
conducting a study of the subject now (see Walker and Archbold
2000). He has found only sixteen such programs, all but one of
which operate in connection with citizen oversight agencies. [FN13] Some
are virtually dormant, moreover. Four, for example, had not successfully
mediated a single case in the last year for which data was available;
one had not even received any complaint referrals. No more than
three (Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon) handled
over twenty cases in 1998. Settlement rates varied widely: from
100 percent in four places to zero in three others. Only in Minneapolis
did the number of successful mediations exceed 10 percent of all
These figures should not be regarded as unduly discouraging, however.
A number of programs are very recent. Also, methods of reporting
statistics to Professor Walker may have varied. Minneapolis, for
instance, appears to compute its success rate by comparing the
number of settled cases to the total number of cases in which mediation
was offered. New York, by contrast, employs as a yardstick only
those cases in which mediation was both offered and accepted. If
one excludes non-mediated cases, Minneapolis achieved a settlement
rate of over 81 percent. [FN14]
More important than current statistics are future prospects. Professor
Walker has identified a number of potential obstacles to mediation
in this setting. The most significant is opposition from police
officers and their unions. Notably, the Minneapolis project, deemed
one of the most successful, has received the Police Federation's
written endorsement (Walker and Archbold 2000: 1142); such support
is, sadly, rare. Mediation programs can also founder on lack of
understanding of the process (with which complainants as well as
respondents are likely to be unfamiliar), insufficient resources,
or absence of adequate inducement to mediate. For example, Portland
has suffered a decline in referrals on account of staff cutbacks
at its Neighborhood Mediation Center. (Walker and Archbold 2000:
10). Further, Professor Walker speculates that police officers'
traditional –win– rate of 90 percent of regular complaint
investigations gives them "little if any incentive for choosing
an alternative." [FN15] Conversely,
the strengthening of disciplinary standards in Minneapolis may
explain the increase in mediations there. (Walker and Archbold
New York City's experience with mediating citizen complaints has,
on the whole, been very positive — although the enterprise
was slow in getting off the ground and only recently has gained
momentum. In its present incarnation, as an all-civilian, non-police
review board, the CCRB came into existence in January 1993. The
Board consists of thirteen members, with five, including the chair,
appointed by the Mayor; five by the City Council (one from each
of the five boroughs); and three by the Police Commissioner. The
CCRB has so-called "FADO" jurisdiction: it handles complaints
against the police involving Force, Abuse of Authority, Discourtesy
and Offensive language.
Where the citizen cooperates, [FN16] the
staff ordinarily investigates the matter; the Board, sitting in
panels of three, reviews the staffs findings and, in substantiated
cases, recommends an appropriate form of discipline to the Commissioner.
(The low rates of substantiation and punitive action, noted earlier,
have drawn criticism from such groups as the New York Civil Liberties
Until recently, the agency also offered the complainant a form
of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) called conciliation. As
previously noted, this option does not involve a meeting between
the civilian and the officer. Rather, with the complainant's consent,
conciliation requires only that the officer speak with a senior
"who discusses the complaint and proper police procedure in
such an incident." [FN18]
In the winter of 1997, as authorized by the city charter and
with the Police Department's support, the CCRB inaugurated an additional
ADR option: a pilot project in mediation. I was among the original
recruits —chosen, I suspect, as much for my five years of
service as a prosecutor as for my mediation experience (not very
extensive at the time). We spent a day at police headquarters.
Members of the force taught us "cop speak" (insider lingo)
and made various presentations about departmental operations and
certain aspects of officer training. We also took part in a briefer
meeting at the board's office, learning about the CCRB as well
as the new mediation program.
The ground rules (basically the same now as when the program
began) provide that both the civilian and the officer have to agree
to mediation; it is wholly voluntary, offered by the staff in appropriate
cases after a description of the process. Although the program
has a director, the board itself decides which cases will be referred
to mediation. (Leaving this decision to the former's discretion
would, undoubtedly, avert some delay. [FN19])
Allegations of excessive force resulting in injury or property
damage are not candidates for mediation; nor are charges against
an officer who has appeared in a mediation within the preceding
Sessions take place at the CCRB's office in Manhattan, with either
one or two mediators. [FN20] To
level the playing field psychologically, the officer is told to
appear in proper civilian dress — though regrettably, because
of bureaucratic slip-ups, officers sometimes fail to receive that
message and, therefore, attend in uniform. When the parties first
arrive, they are kept apart until the mediator meets them, introduces
herself, and then escorts the parties into a conference room.
Unless a particular party requires assistance (such as a translator
or, in the case of a minor, a parent) in order to participate,
only the parties and the mediator are present. Counsel and union
representatives are excluded, although — as in the grand
jury setting —
clients may step outside to consult them. (In my experience, that
rarely happens.) Again, this practice apparently aims to ensure
that the citizen, who is unrepresented, does not experience intimidation;
also, it furthers interaction between the parties. [FN21]
As always, the conduct of the session varies somewhat among mediators.
For example, I often abandon the usual mediator-in-the-middle,
parties-opposite-each-other seating arrangement. I ask the citizen
and the officer to sit next to each other at the table, with me
on the other side facing both. I have found that this placement
tends to promote direct exchange between the parties, which I encourage. [FN22]
Every mediator must, of course, give an opening statement. In
addition to covering the usual bases — confidentiality, impartiality,
the purely facilitative role of the mediator, and so forth —
the mediator needs to explain and have the parties sign a "Confidentiality
and Consent Agieement" (Because the form contains a lot of
legal verbiage, the mediator should take care to "translate"
it into user-friendly language.) Basically, this Agreement, when
signed, binds the parties and the mediator not to disclose "statements
made or documents prepared for the mediation procedure" by
any participant, "except that the parties may discuss the
mediation with their attorneys, representatives or employers." It
also prevents the parties from subpoenaing the mediator or each
other to give evidence, and the mediator from "voluntarily
testify[ing] on behalf of any party at any subsequent proceeding."
The mediator should also mention the three potential outcomes
of the mediation. First, the participants may sign a Resolution
Agreement, another form drafted by lawyers. This indicates that
no investigation will follow, since the matter has been satisfactorily
resolved. Each party releases the other, and the citizen releases
the Police Department and New York City, from liability. The participants
may also add their own, nonstandard terms, but have virtually never
Second, the civilian and officer can agree verbally that, because
they have settled their differences, they desire to end the proceedings.
In either case (as the parties are told), the allegations will
be removed from the officer's history, [FN23] the
word "mediated" will be inserted, and the complaint will
not amount to a "black mark" on his or her record. Third,
the mediation might reach impasse. In that event, the officer is
dismissed, the complainant is interviewed immediately by an investigator,
and the complaint is otherwise treated as if no mediation had occurred.
The sessions generally last about one and a half to two hours.
As of the end of March 2000, about three years into the project,
the mediators had handled 62 cases, of which almost all (61) culminated
in agreement. The good news is that we have an extremely high settlement
the bad news, that the number of successfully mediated cases comprises
a woefully small percentage of the total number of complaints closed
by the CCRB.
But that figure will surely increase. For one thing, the word
appears to be getting out among the police that mediation is not
a threat. The CCRB puts out a booklet addressed to officers that
sets forth, simply and persuasively, why they might want to consider
mediation. It emphasizes that in "a safe, secure environment.
. .you finally get a chance to explain why you did what you did."
This undated booklet (titled "Mediating a Complaint at the
CCRB: Why You as a Police Officer Should Consider Mediation")
By not having direct communication with the complainant,
you lose the opportunity to ask questions, refresh a memory,
learn how the citizen perceived your actions, and gain a new
perspective on how you can improve your policing.
In mediation. . .[y]ou have the chance to present your view
of the incident, challenge the citizen's description where
necessary, make proposals for resolving the complaint, and
respond directly to similar suggestions made by the citizen.
Thus,. . .you have the opportunity to be an active participant
in resolving the complaint against you, as opposed to being
a passive party in an investigation.
We have no way of knowing, of course, how many officers read
this booklet. (Even the few who have taken part in mediations ordinarily
have not seen it, although the Police Department is supposed to
have given them copies beforehand.) Regardless, some members of
the force must have heard by word-of-mouth of their colleagues'
positive experiences; a number of "satisfied customers"
have told me that they would tout the process to others. Moreover,
a lieutenant, the sole police employee of the all-civilian review
board, has used his credibility to convince a number of respondents
Likely even more salient — given the importance of union
views — the Policemen's Benevolent Association, while not
voicing support for the program, has dropped its earlier active
opposition. The Sergeants' Benevolent Association has indicated
it favors mediation. Only the Detectives' Endowment Association
remains implacably opposed at this time. [FN25]
Perhaps most significant of all, the Board voted in May 1999
to suspend the other ADR option, conciliation, for the rest of
the year, "as part of new efforts to expand mediation" [FN26];
that policy remains in effect in 2000. Over the past few months,
the number of cases has, in fact, been rising steadily. A new class
of mediators has been trained and begun to serve. The Board has
even decided to pay its former volunteer mediators a token amount
(fifty dollars) for each session. Mediation is, thus, clearly evolving
from pilot project to institution.
The Board should formally evaluate the program in the not-too-distant
future (as I believe it intends to do). [FN27] For
now, based on my own impressions of mediating at the CCRB, I would
recommend that the board continue to expand its use. In addition,
I hope the mediation process gains a more secure footing in other
agencies, around the country, concerned with police-community relations.
Some Features of Citizen-Police Encounters
that Lead to Complaints
Civilian complaints against the police, like the interpersonal
disputes (neighbor-neighbor, landlord-tenant, ex-friends and former
lovers) that constitute the daily fare at community mediation centers,
tend to arise from highly emotional situations. [FN28] Even
the generally law-abiding citizen often regards an encounter with
an officer as something to avoid, rather like a visit to the dentist: " [M]ost
people naturally experience a slight tinge of panic when approached
by a policeman . . ." (Bittner 1990: 95).
For many, receipt of a traffic citation provides their sole interaction
with police. The targeted person will typically feel resentful
or hostile —"That cop should be chasing crooks, not
bothering me!" [FN29] Predictably,
a disproportionate number of complaints stem from traffic stops
gone wrong: a fender-bender where one party calls for an officer;
a failure to pull over immediately at the sound of a siren; an
illegal U-turn on a crowded street. [FN30]
Concomitantly, officers constantly deal with people at their
worst. They perennially rub shoulders with criminals, with victims,
and with the annoyed, frustrated, or angry individual. Policemen
and women may "burn out," become cynical, or just place
a very low priority on public relations. As one officer said poignantly
during a mediation session to a citizen who had screamed at him,
while he was trying to investigate whether the man had left the
scene of an accident: "We're human, too." Further, "an
essential part of policing is taking charge of situations."
(Skolnick 1966: 54). That characteristic of the work tends not
only to isolate officers but also to make them very sensitive to
any attack, real or perceived, on their authority.
Some, indeed, view the mere asking of questions or requests for
an explanation as such a challenge. The least sign of verbal —
let alone, physical — resistance or disrespect may sometimes
escalate hostilities and may lead to threats and cursing: "Shut
the [expletive deleted] up or I'll cuff you!" and "Move
the [expletive deleted] over when you hear the siren!" are
typical salvos. (Most officers deny using offensive words but concede
this behavior is unprofessional; a few justify it as a tit-for-tat
response to a rude civilian.) A citizen, however, may not appreciate
at the time that the officer needs to stabilize matters (control
a potentially unruly crowd, remove a damaged car from the roadway)
before responding to her concerns. Compounding these factors, racial
tension between police and members of minorities in some neighborhoods
adds extra fuel to the fire.
Despite these problems, the paradigmatic complainant who opts
for mediation in general strongly supports the police. He or she
has friends or relatives on the force, has never been in trouble
with the law, and is anxious to maintain a spotless record. Seeing
himself as a model citizen, he suffers a strong and lasting reaction
of pain, humiliation, and anger when an officer treats him with
what he regards as disrespect. More than once, I have heard complainants
in mediation fling the city's police motto, "CPR" (Courtesy,
Professionalism, and Respect), in the officer's face. They seem
disappointed as well as irate.
Immigrants — and others whose sense of security or respectability
is hard won — may endure a special feeling of betrayal. In
one of my cases, a Russian refugee involved in a minor car accident
hailed a policeman. She interpreted his brusqueness as rudeness
(his concern was, first and foremost, to get the vehicles over
to the side in order to protect the public) and felt that he had
listened only to the other driver. [FN31] Eloquently,
if in broken English, she said she would have expected this to
occur in her homeland but not in the United States, to which she
had fled to escape such conduct. Until the mediation process helped
to sort out matters to her satisfaction, the woman viewed the officer
as a subverter of the American dream.
In another instance, a proud, elderly Jamaican couple, who had
worked hard to join the ranks of the middle class, experienced
horror when the police came to their home to investigate a (false)
report that the husband had struck an eight-year-old boy. They
regarded their excellent reputation among mostly native-born neighbors
as a foundation of their identity and feared the officers had destroyed
it by their public investigation.
Frequently, bad communication creates barriers between good people.
The Russian complainant and the officer she cited literally spoke
a different language. In another case, a protective Haitian father
took umbrage because the police would not let him, instead of his
daughter, answer their questions: with his limited English, he
did not comprehend their need to speak to her because she, not
he, had been the subject of a complaint. (Further, that need conflicted
with his own — to shield his daughter. )
Even more cases involve problems stemming from miscommunication,
misunderstanding, and wrong or partial information unconnected
to language issues. The police who descended on the home of the
Jamaica couple were responding to a radio message describing an "assault
on a child in progress." Thus, when the officers arrived at
what they thought to be an emergency scene, they acted in a peremptory
manner that the man and his wife resented deeply. True, when they
realized nothing had actually happened to the boy (the neighbor's
report had been unfounded), they promptly left. Yet they failed
to inform the couple that no charges would be filed, believing —
perhaps mistakenly — that they were supposed to draw up a
complaint and let their superiors evaluate the facts. So the couple
remained baffled and angry, afraid the law would be coming down
upon their heads, while a few words would have helped to restore
their equanimity right away.
This case also illustrates how fear of breaking (or being seen
to break) the rules, real or perceived, constrains the behavior
of the police and, at times, compounds existing problems. Although
officers in the field possess a tremendous amount of discretion,
the "quasi-military" nature of the force and its "style
of internal regulation and control" (Bittner 1990: 147) often
hamstring their better instincts. Anxiety about getting into trouble
with their own bureaucracy dogs their work.
In one mediation, an officer in a patrol car cursed a civilian
when she did not move over quickly to let him pass. He immediately
headed to the nearby precinct. Observing this, the woman concluded
that the officer had not been racing to answer an urgent call.
Therefore, doubly irate at his rudeness, she went inside to report
the incident. The officer later related that he had been responding
to a "10-02,"
a command to return to the stationhouse. Because his mother was
ill at the time, he feared (incorrectly) he had gotten a message
that she had taken a turn for the worse. When he spotted the driver
at the precinct, he felt remorseful and wanted to apologize for
his conduct. But a fellow officer dissuaded him, on the ground
it might seem that he was trying to "stifle" a complaint.
Too often, excessive concern about doing wrong prevents the police
from "doing right." Here, neither officer understood
that squelching a charge by resolving the problem benefits both
the police and the citizen — and does not amount to a violation
of the complaint system.
Having discussed why even routine encounters can easily degenerate
into ugly confrontations, with resulting allegations of misconduct
against the officer, I shall now show how mediation can repair
the damage. Following a review of the major features of civilian-police
mediation sessions, I shall offer a detailed description of three
of my cases (changing the facts as necessary to safeguard confidentiality)
in order to illustrate how such mediations play out
Mediating Complaints Against the Police
I have found that these complaints lend themselves extremely
well to nonevaluative, purely facilitative mediation. Opportunities
arise to "transform" the parties, to use the language
of Professors Bush and Folger, by empowering each as an individual
and eliciting mutual recognition. [FN32]
I surmise that this is true because discussions do not focus
on bargaining over "gives" and "gets"; instead,
they are dialogue driven. The formal Resolution Agreement consists
entirely of boilerplate "legalese." The parties exchange
mutual releases, but no money and no promises. In essence, the
process itself is the agreement.
Through the back-and-forth of discussion, aided by a skilled
neutral, the citizen receives what he most desires: the chance
to be heard by the officer. The officer, on her part, receives
the chance, which she ordinarily values (ultimately, if not at
first), to explain her actions to the citizen. These opportunities
empower the parties
— particularly the complainant, who often seems to need to
achieve equal status with the officer, by whom he feels he has
Both parties, moreover, are encouraged to listen as well as speak.
Rare is the case in which either emerges from the mediation wholly
unchanged. Rather, each side comes away from the table with a better
sense of why the other behaved as he did. Especially in the typical
instance of misunderstanding, mistake or ignorance, "Monday
morning quarterbacking" gives the parties a revised view of
the earlier encounter. With fuller comprehension comes recognition
of the other's humanity and empathy for that person's situation.
In some ways, the dynamic resembles that of victim-offender mediation.
More broadly, it reflects the principles underlying "restorative
justice" — the focus is on problem solving, as opposed
to establishing blame for past behavior. [FN33]
Because the session emphasizes communication, not bargaining,
caucuses are hardly ever required; I have met separately with the
participants only twice. In one case, I wished to alert the policeman
privately that I would be declaring impasse: the citizen was plainly
mentally disturbed and unable to benefit from the process. [FN34] In
the second, the citizen could not make up his mind whether he wanted
to sign the agreement. Sensing that something specific was preying
on his mind, I called a caucus. In private, he shared his fear
of retaliation by the officer. With his assent, I conveyed this
concern to the officer and "coached" the latter in strategies
to dispel the worry. The officer then reassured the complainant,
in joint session, and the matter was resolved.
These mediations tend to involve a lot of repetitive recounting
by the citizen of the event that spawned the complaint. [FN35] At
times, I encapsulate long stories into maxims or sound bites, such
as "First impressions count" or "No good deed goes
unpunished." That way, I confine my interventions so as to
permit the parties themselves to dominate the conversation. Active
listening by the mediator also helps the citizen feel truly heard,
especially since some officers, at the outset, "play attorney"
— attempting to limit the complainant narrowly to facts that
they consider relevant. But policemen and women do, ordinarily,
open up and express frustration, anger, regret, and other feelings.
They, too, need to have their emotions validated.
One technique to encourage officers' self-disclosure is asking
how they regard their jobs. This line of inquiry usually evokes
a more positive vision of the work than one might expect, given
widespread police cynicism. Maybe officers tend to be cynical because,
at heart, they are thwarted idealists. Mediation provides them
with a "safe space" in which to express — and perhaps
recapture, if only briefly — the reasons why they joined
the police force in the first place.
In this context, where the players will rarely have a continuing
relationship, framing the issues is primarily a backward- not forward-looking
process. [FN36] Resolution
turns on how the participants come to view the past instead of
on how they plan the future. Thus, for example (recurring to a
previously mentioned case), I got the parties to understand how
the Haitian father's legitimate concern to protect his daughter
from the police clashed with the officers' valid need to obtain
information directly from her. In most settings, discussion would
concentrate more on how to reconcile divergent interests, if only
monetarily; here, it ordinarily suffices to acknowledge their existence.
Other aspects of mediating between civilians and police will
sound familiar to any practitioner. When parties accuse each other
of lying, I point out that memories can differ — especially
when the triggering incident occurred several months before and
involved heated emotions. Factual conflict may sometimes mask accord
on underlying values, which the neutral should try to unearth.
For example, an officer may deny having uttered a curse or slur
but admit such behavior would have been wrong; such a concession
gives the citizen a bit of a moral victory.
In addition, I employ humor at times to dispel tension. I try
to emphasize commonalities: the parties may hail from the same
neighborhood; both may hold a "do good" job (for instance,
a social worker complainant and an officer whose specialty is outreach
to the homeless); the citizen might have police connections; and
so forth. [FN37] I
urge people to put themselves in the other's place or to replay
their own role, doing it better, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.
Where warranted, I encourage apologies; fairly often, they occur
spontaneously. [FN38] Some
apologies are conditional rather than absolute: "I'm sorry
if I offended you"; "I wouldn't have done that if I had
known it would make you mad"; "I don't think I said that,
but if I did I apologize."
Whether or not apologies are offered, the civilian and the police
officer frequently shake hands at the end of the mediation. At
the very least, each party has gained a sense of the other person
as a human being rather than merely a stereotypical cop or "lowlife."
Interestingly, cases that seem the least promising at the outset
often result in the most heartfelt conciliations. These include
one where the citizen was so incensed, he berated the officer in
the hallway before the mediation began. By the end of the session,
realizing he had misjudged the officer because he had not known
critical facts, he apologized profusely and worried that his complaint
would stain the officer's record. He even kissed one of the mediators,
much to her embarrassment!
Many mediations have wound down with a leisurely "schmooze"
unrelated to the complaint. One of the more amusing occurred at
the end of the Jamaican couple's case. They and the two female
officers chatted together like old friends — bemoaning
the "younger generation," who do not respect their
elders. I would be shocked if either policewoman was a day over
22. But the only important thing was that they had all found
Next, I shall detail how I handled three particular cases. By
so doing, I hope to illustrate what makes citizen-police mediations
especially rewarding and, I believe, uniquely worthwhile.
Three Illustrative New York CCRB Cases
A Rude Wake-Up Call
This mediation had six participants: four parties and two mediators.
The complainants were an African-American mother in her thirties,
Doris, and her daughter, Tammy, about sixteen, who reside in the
borough of Brooklyn. They had brought charges against a pair of
Hispanic officers, Juan and Steve. My co-mediator's name is Jake.
In this (our first) mediation for the CCRB, we seated the parties
opposite each other and ourselves at the head of the table. I had
Steve on my immediate right; Jake had Doris on his left.
The session opened with Doris telling her side of the story.
At 5:30 on an August morning, during a heat wave, the household
awoke to the noise of pounding on the front door of the apartment.
When she heard "Open up, police!," she threw on a robe
and opened the door a crack; she was frightened. One of the policemen,
Juan, immediately thrust his foot over the threshold and kept it
there throughout the encounter.
The other officer, Steve, said they had come to execute an arrest
warrant for Doris's nephew, who was wanted for armed robbery; they
said they believed he was living with her. Immediately, her fear
turned to anger. The young man had never resided in her house;
in fact, she had even barred him from visiting after she caught
him offering drugs to her twelve-year-old son six months earlier.
She had threatened to kill him if he went near her boy again. Given
this background, Doris said she felt horrified at even the thought
of his staying with her. She told the officers that she had no
idea where he was, but they wouldn't listen. Instead, they insisted
on entering to check the apartment themselves.
At this point, Doris became aware that her daughter was standing
behind her. Tammy had been sleeping on the sofa in the front room,
which was cooler than the rest of the house; she had nothing on
but a thin T-shirt. Doris told the officers she would let them
in to look around, but first she wanted to close the door so Tammy
could run to her bedroom to dress. She did not want the men to
see the girl "half-naked." Juan, however, insisted on
keeping his foot in the door, while Steve told Doris he would arrest
"if you don't shut your [expletive deleted] mouth right now."
So Tammy had to pass by the door in full view of the officers,
who entered, looked around the apartment briefly, and then left.
Incensed, Doris stated that the officers hadn't even apologized
for coming to the wrong place and terrifying her sleeping family.
Juan proceeded to give the officers' side of the story. It appeared
they had gone to Doris's home on account of a mix-up. The mother
of the boy they were seeking (Doris's sister-in-law), who has the
same last name as Doris, lives in the same apartment building.
Juan said he couldn't remember every detail of the encounter —
he and his partner had served dozens of warrants in the intervening
months. He explained, however, that as warrant officers they always
search for their targets at dawn, the best time to find the person
at home and surprise him. He hadn't let Doris close the door because,
until they went inside, the officers couldn't know for sure whether
the nephew was there or not. Also, Doris might have refused to
open the door again, forcing them to break it down.
Doris cut in to say she would have allowed them to enter —
she is a law-abiding citizen and has several cops in her family.
Indeed, had they behaved otherwise, she would likely have "invited
Notably, in giving his version of events, Juan spoke directly
to Doris and very politely. Although, he said, he recalled some
things differently from her, he understood how extremely upset
she must have felt. Reinforced by Jake's active listening, he conveyed
a lot of empathy. He volunteered that he had had a previous career
as a social worker, which may explain why he naturally spoke in
a nonconfrontational manner. Doris was apparently so mollified
that she trained her attention on Steve, claiming that he — and
not Juan — had created the problem, even though it was Juan
who had kept his foot in the doorway.
After Doris vented some more, I summed up her situation: she
had experienced shock and fear when first woken. The officers then
added insult to injury by telling her that they were searching
for the hated nephew in her home; for Doris, it was as though they
had accused her of harboring a serial killer. To have cops "stick
their feet" in her door and imply that she was breaking the
law humiliated her, as well as infringed on her family's privacy.
Doris agreed with my verbal feedback. While I was talking, Juan
listened intently and nodded his head two or three times.
Throughout this discussion, Steve and Tammy had been sitting
quietly. Yet Steve's silence, in the context of his body language,
spoke volumes. In stark contrast to his partner, he slouched in
his chair, looked down at his lap, and smirked occasionally, conveying
distaste if not contempt for the whole proceeding. Steve was the
polar opposite of Juan, who seemed eager to explain the reasons
for the mix-up.
When pressed to talk, Steve did so in a sullen fashion. He stated
that he did not remember cursing at Doris. [FN39] He
did recall that Doris had been screaming loudly, cursing at them,
paying no heed to what they said and, in general, behaving in an
"irrational" manner. They had, however, talked briefly
with Tammy, who acted calmly. Doris denied Steve's account and
called him a "liar," whereupon he threatened to quit
At this juncture, Jake intervened to defuse the tension by skillfully
framing the main issue in a neutral, nonjudgmental way. Validating
the complainant's and the policemen's perspectives, he pointed
out that the officers needed to maintain control of the situation
(specifically, by keeping the door open), while Doris needed to
protect her daughter's privacy and modesty. He noted that it would
have been very difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate both
interests at once.
Although Doris never conceded that the officers "had"
to act as they did, she was now speaking to Juan in a positively
friendly fashion. But the prospects of her wanting to drop the
complaint against Steve still seemed bleak. To achieve resolution,
the mediators made several interventions.
For one thing, we drew out Tammy. Since she had exercised self-control
during both the incident itself and the mediation — unlike
her mother, she had not interrupted anyone — one could predict
that she would have a stabilizing influence. Indeed, she did. By
remarking that Doris had herself displayed "a bit of an attitude"
at the time, Tammy lent some support to the officers, as Juan had
lent some support to Doris through his sincere expression of empathy.
Thus, two participants, Juan and Tammy, had gone far, with the
mediators' help, toward understanding and recognizing their opposing
parties. In so doing, they served as models of appropriate behavior
for the more recalcitrant duo, Steve and Doris.
I used my position next to Steve to focus all my attention on
him, taking his "emotional temperature" while Jake tried
to get him to see why Doris had been, from her vantage, legitimately
upset. To strengthen Steve — Jake was conveying Doris's viewpoint
quite emphatically — I would at times make comments like "An
officer's job is very difficult," or pose leading questions
like "Do you face a lot of tough situations?" He indicated
by body language and tone of voice that he was responding favorably
to this recognition. While a single mediator could have blown hot
and cold toward Steve, alternately pressing down on him and then
trying to shore him up, co-mediation made a division of labor possible.
(Of course, co-mediators must take care not to overdo this "good
cop/bad cop" strategy; it carries the risk that each side
will think it "owns" one of the neutrals.)
The most critical intervention occurred when Jake, intuitively,
asked Steve to tell us how he viewed his job. In response, Steve
actually waxed eloquent about the work of a warrant officer. He
took obvious pride in the fact that he had been responsible for
more arrests the year before than anyone else in his unit. Suddenly,
Steve no longer appeared burned out and cynical, rude and defensive.
Jake had evoked a "better Steve" than the mean bully
the women had seen; he now projected a professional image.
Self-confidence regained, Steve felt empowered to acknowledge
the feelings of the complainants: he volunteered that, had he been
in the daughter's shoes, he would have wished the mother to act
protectively toward him. He then offered a conditional apology:
if he had cursed, he shouldn't have done so. Twice, he addressed
this statement to the mediators; we, in turn, coached him to talk
to Doris directly. The third time he did so, and the logjam broke.
From that point on, the path to agreement was swift and smooth.
Jake even got Doris and Steve to shake hands. Finally, concerned
that another mix-up could occur, Doris wrote down the policemen's
names and how to reach them. Juan and Steve agreed that, should
other officers ever contact Doris in an effort to find the nephew,
they would be happy to verify her "innocence."
Despite this session's positive results, I must close with a
small caveat: I personally have reservations regarding how much
Steve actually learned as a result of the mediation. I fear that
he will continue to act impatient, rough, "macho," and
rude in many situations. Although I believe he did get into the
spirit somewhat, I also think he ultimately cooperated in part
only to make the complaint disappear. To that extent, he was "talking
not "walking the walk." Moreover, as mentioned, Doris
never did see from the officers' viewpoint why the door had to
Yet one cannot expect a two-hour mediation to produce a major
transformation in a person's character or attitude. More realistically,
one can hope it yields small changes right away, and plant seeds
of a deeper understanding that will blossom in the future. Occasionally,
though, heart-warming results occur on the spot. The next case
provides an example.
A Robbery That Wasn't
This was a two-party mediation. The civilian, a middle-aged Haitian
woman named Lucille, who lived in the Bronx, had filed a complaint
against Jane, a white female officer in her twenties. I sat across
the table from Jane; Ann, my co-mediator, seated by me, was opposite
The incident that brought them together began when Lucille's
second-floor tenant, unbeknownst to her, called in a "robbery" to
the police emergency telephone number 911. When Jane arrived, Lucille
stated, she was aghast. Sounding some familiar themes, Lucille
stressed that neither she nor her family had ever been in trouble
with the law before and accused Jane of having disrespected her
and listened only to the tenant's story.
The so-called robbery involved a minor disagreement between Lucille's
teen-age son and the tenant over compact disks that the former
had borrowed. As Lucille and the boy attempted to explain to Jane,
he had taken these with the permission of the tenant and was ready
to give them back. Not only had her son committed no crime, Lucille
insisted, but also the officer "got it backward"; the
man who complained was himself a criminal. Lucille then described
the neighbor as the "tenant from hell": he had turned
the upstairs of her well-kept home into a pigsty. He and his girlfriend
drank, swore, smoked pot, invited "street people" into
their apartment, and created noisy disturbances. One of their visitors
had shown pornographic pictures to her eleven-year old daughter.
By the time of the mediation session, Lucille had succeeded in
getting the tenant out — but only by paying him money to
leave. He should have paid damages to her!
Reliving the event plainly upset Lucille. Crying at times, she
frequently punctuated her tale with "Praise Jesus" and
crossed herself. She stated that she was the mother of six wonderful
children and showed us a number of family photographs. She also
expressed concern that the tenant's baseless accusation had given
her son a juvenile record. As someone who greatly respected the
police and used to regard them as sources of help, she had "lost
faith" on account of this incident and had suffered nightmares
ever since (a period of about five months).
While Lucille told her story, Jane intervened only once —
to describe the family photos Lucille displayed as "irrelevant,"
a dismissive remark that officers often make initially. Ann and
I explained that "relevance" in mediation covered whatever
any of the parties felt should be heard or seen by the others.
Atypically, Lucille had addressed most of her comments to Jane
from the outset. Despite Lucille's pain and anger, this did seem
to be a promising start.
When her turn came, Jane stated that she had answered a radio
call of a "robbery in progress," and expected to encounter
a grave situation. At first, thus, she probably was somewhat abrupt
as she tried to determine what was happening. Because the tenant
had summoned the police, she spoke to him first. Quickly seeing
that no robbery had occurred, Jane canceled her call for backup.
She then tried to interview Lucille. But the older woman was overwrought
and incapable of making sense. Jane denied that she had been rude;
on the contrary, she reported, it was Lucille who had screamed
at her. She did, however, talk to the son, who was physically restraining
At this point, Lucille rose from her seat, dramatically accused
the officer of "lying on" her, and started to leave.
Ann, my co-mediator, coaxed Lucille to stay by explaining that,
although the parties might disagree about what had actually happened
in the past, they could agree to resolve their differences. Lucille
then said that she did not wish for the (now visibly pregnant)
officer to be punished. She only wanted to get an apology and make
sure that her son did not have a black mark on his record.
With little prompting by the mediators, Jane rose to the occasion
superbly. Noting that she was a "cop's daughter," raised
in a traditional home, the officer said that she had been taught
to respect her elders — right or wrong. It "hurt"
her to see Lucille cry and to think that the woman had been unhappy
for months because of the incident; as an officer, she tried her
best to treat others as she would like them to treat her mother.
Moreover, she reassured Lucille, she had reported to her superiors
that no further action was warranted — the boy had done nothing
During this display of sympathy and empathy, the voluble complainant
had sometimes cut in, saying "You didn't know," and following
this up with a litany of the tenant's misdeeds. Jane readily concurred:
"I didn't know that." I pointed out that Lucille, too,
had been unaware of a critical fact: the serious, albeit false,
charge levied by the tenant against her son, which had caused Jane
to enter "loaded for bear." I also noted how often mistakes
led to problems between good people, each of whom was acting properly
according to the facts as she understood them.
At this juncture, Ann prompted a conditional apology from the
officer: if she had known the type of person the tenant was (likely,
a liar), as contrasted with Lucille (an upstanding citizen), she
would have approached Lucille in a different manner. I then suggested
that the parties might want to sign the Resolution Agreement; they
readily assented. While we were reading its terms aloud, the ever-demonstrative
Lucille leaned over and warmly shook the officer's hand. Before
departing, she made Jane promise to visit her after the birth of
Jane's baby. Plainly, she wanted Jane to see her at her best —
as a house-proud hostess rather than as the frazzled mother of
a wrongly accused robbery suspect. Jane, in turn, wrote out her
name and telephone number, telling Lucille to call her if Lucille
ever had trouble in the neighborhood. [FN41]
Resolution was surely facilitated by the officer's willingness
to see and acknowledge the complainant's point of view, even while
viewing the facts differently. In that respect, she resembled Juan
— whose conciliatory style and warm personality aided settlement
in the case previously discussed. The next, and last, case also
involved a policeman with a sensitive side. However, the civilian,
a sophisticated man, had more of an agenda than Lucille brought
with her simpler case, and the matter was further complicated by
the perception of racial bias
Getting Inside Another Man's Skin
I mediated alone in this case. The parties were both men in their
thirties: the complainant, Kevin, an African-American physician's
assistant who lives in the suburbs; the respondent, Don, a college-educated
white police sergeant. As luck would have it, the conference room
— which houses a long rectangular table — was unavailable,
so we took over an empty office with a small round table. Each
participant, therefore, sat beside the others.
The prospects for a successful session appeared rather dim at
the outset. First, in violation of policy (about which he had likely
not been told), Don showed up in uniform. Then, he wanted his union
representative to attend the mediation. When we explained this
was not allowed, the two repaired to the waiting room for a lengthy
private meeting. I believed that the officer would refuse to mediate,
but found that possibility welcome because of concerns about the
civilian: the investigation report stated that Kevin had threatened
to "get that cop," irrespective of the disposition of
his complaint. I had gone so far as to ask a staff member to stay
alert for signs of trouble.
Happily, events belied my assumptions. The officer agreed to
come to the table without the representative. Further, the mediation
produced a very useful — and nonviolent — exchange
of views between the parties. Despite its inauspicious beginning,
the case ended up as a paradigm of the virtues of citizen-police
The underlying incident stemmed from a traffic infraction. Kevin
related that he and his wife had driven one night in a new van
to his childhood home in the South Bronx, where his parents still
live; it is a tough, high-crime neighborhood. He said he made an
illegal U-turn into a bus stop, remaining there while the wife
got out and went upstairs to deliver a package. At this point,
a police car drew up behind him. Don approached, in what Kevin
called "a belligerent manner," said something like "Why
haven't you moved yet?", and demanded to see his license,
registration, and insurance card. Kevin asked why; Don did not
answer. Kevin then displayed his license but said that the officer
would have to wait for his wife's return in order to see the other
documents. He explained that she had just bought him the van as
a gift and hadn't yet given him all of the paperwork.
Kevin insisted that he did not resent the stop; he knew that
he had broken the law. But, Kevin repeated, Don was belligerent —
he had an "attitude." Worse still, when Kevin's wife
came back and was able to produce only the registration, Kevin
noticed that Don had already written a ticket. Again, Kevin said
he did not dispute the fact that he had made an illegal U-turn
and was standing in a bus stop. He felt, however, that Don had
prejudged him — "The cop made me guilty till proven
— because Don had prepared the summons without even waiting
to see whether Kevin's wife had the documents. Worst of all, Kevin
said, he firmly believed that the sergeant had acted this way on
account of his race and that a white citizen "would surely
have received better treatment."
Don denied having been belligerent, but stated that he was "annoyed"
when the complainant did not respond to his signal to move. Kevin
interrupted at this point, insisting that he had seen nothing
(it was dark), and asked why the officer hadn't employed a bullhorn.
Don replied that he avoids using bullhorns because he considers
the practice rude, as opposed to his own approach. Moreover,
he emphasized, he had been "nice" to issue only an
insurance ticket, which Kevin could easily "beat" by
sending in a copy of the insurance card. (This is what Kevin,
in fact, had done.) By contrast, a ticket for the bad U-turn
or parking in a bus stop — which he would have given if
he hadn't thought that Kevin looked like a "business guy" —would
have cost Kevin over $100. Don, thus, implied that Kevin should
have felt grateful instead of aggrieved.
It is sadly common, a hallmark of the gulf dividing the police
from the public, for an officer to think that he has done the civilian
a favor by engaging in the very behavior that the latter finds
offensive. I might have made that point to the parties, in an attempt
to promote understanding. However, Kevin was clearly unimpressed
by Don's "generosity."
So I decided to remain silent, believing Kevin was not yet ready
to hear that Don had tried to do the right thing. I would recur
to this theme later.
The officer then remarked that he had resided in the Bronx all
his life and had freely chosen to work there, out of a sense of
dedication. Plainly, he was conveying the message: "I'm not
just some white guy who lives on Long Island — I know and
care about this community." Just as plainly, the complainant
was not going to let the officer off the hook so easily.
"Where exactly?," Kevin inquired. (The Bronx contains
neighborhoods ranging from minority ghettos to luxury enclaves.)
Understandably, Don would not reveal his home address. I, therefore,
reframed the question into one regarding demographics, and Don
replied that he lived in a racially-mixed area. Even more pointedly,
Kevin asked how many "priors" Don had had at the CCRB;
Don, again, declined to respond. I tried to strike a reasonable
balance between privacy and disclosure by telling the parties that
police officers with an extensive complaint record are not referred
to mediation. Kevin appeared somewhat mollified.
For about two and a half hours (which passed quickly), the parties
rehashed the events of that night. Both men were articulate and
eloquent. At first, when the police sergeant began to speak, he
fired off a series of questions for the complainant to answer.
I liked the fact that Don was speaking to Kevin directly, yet monitored
the exchange closely to ensure that it did not turn into harassment
by cross-examination. Kevin could clearly hold his own, as his
inquiries to Don revealed. However, he persistently addressed only
me. I told him "You can talk to Don," and shifted my
gaze to the officer's face, which had the effect of "pulling" Kevin's
eyes toward Don. After a while, Kevin automatically spoke to Don
as well as to me. (The roundness and small size of our table also
created a sense of intimacy conducive to candid conversation.)
More and more, as time passed, each party — especially,
the complainant — plainly felt himself more empowered. As
a result, both became increasingly willing to accord recognition
to the other. I facilitated this process by using traditional mediator
tools, such as reframing and active listening.
For example, Kevin volunteered that he had policemen in his family.
He said the police had a "very difficult job, never knowing
when they left the house whether they'd return to their families
later." Repeating and expanding on these remarks, I underlined
how very vulnerable officers are. I also asked how Kevin thought
that he would feel if he were a cop.
Kevin did not reply directly. But he made the interesting and
useful comment that it was in Don's self-interest to be courteous:
a cop never knew when he would get into a tight spot and need assistance
from a civilian. A community member could, for instance, summon
help for an officer under attack, or she could simply walk away.
Don responded to Kevin's point with enthusiastic agreement, noting
that he had been shot at and had furniture thrown at him from a
window. As a "street cop," he understood the critical
importance of popular support.
A number of themes predominated in the latter half of the mediation.
The most important was clearly race. Kevin constantly talked about
the prevalent prejudice against black men, especially the bias
of police officers. Don responded by bringing up once more the "break"
he had given Kevin by issuing only the insurance ticket, and Kevin
again resisted regarding this deed as benevolent. I believed the
parties had by now come far enough to accept input from me on the
I asked Kevin if his point was that he valued respect more than
money, that his overall interaction with Don had bothered him much
more than the summons. He replied: "Exactly." Don nodded.
The officer had come to comprehend the pride of a man who, as he
said, had left the ghetto and bettered his life through education
but still encountered — all too often — stereotyping
A second topic, which I initiated, was the constraints felt by
police in their contacts with the public. In response to Kevin's
statement that he had been angry when Don refused to answer his
questions during the incident, Don noted that he had done so based
on his training. Recruits are taught at the Academy not to reply
to citizens' inquiries until they have "stabilized the situation."
The Police Department wants officers, moreover, to keep to a minimum
interplay with the people they stop — lest what they say
be used against them in litigation.
If Don correctly conveyed the latter policy and its ostensible
rationale, we see another instance of how "the rules"
can generate misunderstandings between officers and civilians.
Interpreted as slights, such blocked communications may actually
fuel citizen complaints and, thereby, increase litigiousness, at
least at the CCRB level. The mediation did, however, enable Don
to explain that his actions were not founded on racial prejudice.
A third motif running through this session in various guises
was education. For one thing, Kevin stressed that Don, a sergeant,
functioned as a role model for junior officers, including his partner. [FN42]I
asked Don (who had already conceded that the department, like any
organization, harbored some "bad apples") what he would
do if he saw a fellow officer talking or acting in a racist fashion.
He made the response I hoped my inquiry would elicit: he wouldn't
tolerate this type of behavior. If necessary, he would even report
such conduct to his superiors.
Don elaborated on the educational theme by discussing his role
as a community policeman. (I had, as usual, questioned the respondent
about his job.) As one of a self-consciously "new" type
of officer, Don is involved in public outreach; he seeks to instruct
members of the public how they can help to combat crime. Kevin
then remarked that he had agreed to come to the mediation session
mainly to teach Don "how to deal with folks on the street" —
in particular, minority men. Don replied: "I learn all the
time, and I will learn from this meeting today."
To heighten the educational function of the session, I encouraged
Kevin to elaborate on why he had viewed Don as "belligerent."
Kevin drew himself rigidly up in his seat, scowled, and crossed
his arms tightly, in imitation of Don's initial approach to him.
Next, I inquired how he believed Don should have behaved. Because
he was finding it hard to put his thoughts on the subject into
words, I had the idea of asking Kevin to stand up and illustrate
a proper police approach; Don would pretend that he was Kevin.
This tack was a variation on a technique I use more often: requesting
a party, with the benefit of hindsight, to replay her own role
in the encounter
— verbally or physically. Acting out, rather than just describing,
what ought to have been done differently makes especially good
sense in the civilian-police setting because complaints frequently
involve hostile touching, tone of voice, or body language, all
of which lend themselves to demonstration.
After Kevin, handling himself with great aplomb, had modeled
his view of appropriate traffic-stop behavior, Don reached over,
shook his hand, and apologized for having treated him rudely. The
officer acknowledged that if he had shown more courtesy to Kevin
at the outset, Kevin would likely have accepted the ticket and
gone on his way without incident. I underlined Don's insight by
"First impressions count."
Drawing together various things the parties had said during the
session, I also pointed out that both had been walking something
of a tightrope — poised between conflicting impulses. As
a community police officer, Don wants to appear friendly. Yet he
also has to be wary; many shootings of cops occur in the context
of vehicle stops. Also, he has been trained to be terse in dealing
with members of the public. Kevin, as an African-American male,
is viscerally suspicious of the police: he feels he has to be wholly
cooperative during an encounter — or else, risk arrest or
violence. However, he wants to assert himself if he thinks he is
being disrespected. These strongly ambivalent emotions made it
harder for each to negotiate the natural tensions engendered by
When the discussion wound down, Don said that he hoped this matter
would terminate with the mediation. Kevin replied he did not want
to hurt Don by giving him a bad record. We then swiftly executed
the form Resolution Agreement.
As is often the case after hostilities have been defused, we
stayed on a few minutes making general conversation. Don was trying,
with obvious sincerity, to convey empathy for black men with their
multifold problems. Politely but firmly, Kevin insisted that even
though Don had grown up in the Bronx, he could not — as a
white man —
really appreciate Kevin's situation. Don looked chagrined. I suggested
that, good intentions notwithstanding, there were limits to anyone's
ability to identify with another: "You can walk in someone
else's shoes, but they will never fit quite like your own."
Kevin responded: "That's OK. It's still better to give it
a try." On that note, we parted with handshakes all around.
In this era of racial troubles and widespread hostility toward
the police in certain segments of the community, anything that
serves to enhance mutual understanding counts as a very large "plus."
With a trained mediator's help, citizen and officer can express
emotions and defend or clarify their actions and perceptions. In
cases of miscommunication, misunderstanding or loss of temper: "Each
party can see where the other is coming from. [FN43]
Is mediation a panacea for strained police-community relations?
Of course not. However, I firmly believe in the maxim that "Great
oaks from little acorns grow." The errors that officers commit
on the street every day, or are perceived to have committed, harden
the community against the police. By the same token, policemen
and women who feel rejected and misunderstood by their constituents
are more likely to act the role of the stereotypical "tough
guy" cop than public servants who feel supported.
Thus, mediation of civilian complaints against the police is
surely a step in the right direction. We need more of it. "Dissing,"
cursing, threatening —even beating or shooting — an
individual is surely harder when one person can see where the other
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