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The Police and the Public: A Mediator’s Reflections

In a society where media coverage and public concern shift rapidly from one headline to another, tension surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner seems to have exceptional durability and to be spilling into numerous venues, not least the conflict between New York’s police and its mayor.  What insight can mediators offer as we seek to understand, and perhaps avoid, such escalating situations in the future?

Let me begin by explaining why I venture into this arena. I am neither a person of color, nor a police officer, but I am the son and godson of New York firemen, and the nephew and cousin of a New York police chaplain and two New York police officers. I also have lived and worked in mixed race communities in several urban areas, including some of the most dangerous parts of New York and Washington DC. 

In fact, I had no particular inclination to enter this discussion, until I read a New York Times op-ed piece by a retired police officer entitled  “Why We’re So Mad at DiBlasio.” One theme in the piece placed the issue squarely under the eye of mediation. The author, like many police, objected to DiBlasio “instructing his son, who is biracial, to be wary of the police.” But in his opening paragraphs he had also noted that the father of one of the recently murdered police officers spoke about his son calling him after every shift to ensure dad he was all right, and said his own wife lay awake night after night fearing a call about his safety when he was at work.

Could there be a more striking case of failing to hear another’s story despite its enormous similarity to your own?  Fathers worry about sons, wives worry about husbands, and this should give them common insight, not cause for animosity. But the parties need to speak to each other, not posture before the media in order to portray themselves as the victims of stereotyping and worse. We have seen successful examples of mutual story-telling between parties in South Africa and Northern Ireland, as described for example in Donna Hicks’s Dignity. (See  Why not seek to do the same between police and citizens? Guided dialogue between bereaved families could be a model for increased understanding, especially if used in community and police training. 

We also know, from the work of David Hoffman and the Internal Family Systems model, that each of us is more than one thing.  Likewise, every group is more than one thing: “the police” are more than simply noble guardians of the law, and more than simply over-reacting racists; “inner city young black men” are more than simply criminals and more than simply model youths. Rigid solidarity on each side, and the perceived need to reject any step toward conciliation seem to be a constant element in these confrontations. We need to explore with each group the inaccuracy of the words “always” and “never,” and find those places where each can concede that “sometimes” and “somewhat” are often the truth.

A few years ago, I encountered an unusual case of using a personal story to go beyond stereotyping.  A police training program sought to help urban officers understand that some citizens view them apprehensively, often due to past experience. Instead of bringing in people of color, they invited a Holocaust survivor to speak.  The elderly woman talked about her youth in Nazi Germany and explained that to this day, when she saw a person in uniform on the streets, she reacted with visceral fear. Hearing a grandmotherly lady reveal her own deeply felt “gut reaction” seemed to allow many white police to empathize with a different reality from their own.

The solution to this problem will need work in multiple arenas, from the political to the economic, to the sociological.  But the wisdom of mediators could have a significant place in the task.


Richard Barbieri

Dr. Richard Barbieri is a board member of the Association for Conflict Resolution and Managing Editor of the journal ACResolution.  He is past president of the New England Association for Conflict Resolution and the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program. MORE >

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