Recently, I attended a panel discussion about ADR and police brutality, which was presented as part of a regular ADR brown bag series sponsored by the Cook County Circuit Court. At a time when police brutality and race relations have been all over the news, this panel discussion was pertinent to me. Not only because of its presence in the news, but also because of its personal significance to me as a member of the African-American community. So I went to the panel, armed with my notebook and pen, ready to take copious notes. My goal: end police brutality with ADR techniques. Spoiler alert: I did not walk away with the key to end police brutality.
The panel discussion arose out of a joint program with the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the New York Peace Institute (NYPI). The program is a JAMS Foundation grant-based project that gives NYPD officers skills they can use when interacting with the public. The goal of the program is to use mediation techniques and principles to teach the officers better communication skills to bridge the gap between the community and the police officers. In order to bridge the gap, the officers need to be taught more cultural literacy, especially when most police officers, including in Chicago, can go their entire careers without any mandatory annual sensitivity training. This means from the time an officer leaves the academy until retirement, the officer can have no training in cultural literacy at all.
The NYPD-NYPI program consists of 12 intensive four-day programs. As of the day of the panel, 7 of the 12 programs have been completed. The program trains 160 officers (and counting) from 20 precincts. The officers participate in listening, reframing, and disengagement exercises, through modeling and role playing. For instance, in role-playing, the officers played civilians while fellow officers or NYPI staff played the role of officers. When the scenario was over, the observing officers as well as the ones participating in the role play gave feedback. Most of the time the officer playing the civilian role expressed frustration at not being allowed to finish speaking or being cut off by the officer. Another critique was that the officer initiated threats of punishment far too quickly before hearing the civilian’s side of things.
Along with the hands-on role playing, the officers learn creative problem solving in ways that are more productive alternatives to “either do this the easy way or do it the hard way.” They are trained to choose de-escalating language and to encourage perspective-taking. So far, the speaker shared with us, the participating officers have been receptive to the program. Some have said that the training is the best they’ve had on the job and wish that it had been offered while they were in the academy. Another comment was that completion of the training program made the officer feel more equipped to deal with the stress of difficult encounters.
As I listened to the speaker read off the officers’ feedback, I was struck by one officer’s comment. For this officer, the training “opened my eyes.” It was a simple line, but it made me think because the comment suggested that the officer had been personally changed by the training. He was able to see something that he couldn’t see prior to the training. It was then that I realized that the use of mediation techniques to teach the officers how to interact with the public not only served as a means of meeting that goal, but it also worked as a mirror for the officers. It reflected themselves. Through the role-playing, for instance, the officers were given a rare opportunity to see how they interact with the public, as well as the chance to see how the public views them. For this officer (and likely others), the use of mediation techniques not only taught them invaluable conflict resolution skills, but it also served as a tool for self-reflection. It means that the officers will be able to better engage in perspective-taking, which could make for more effective and safe public interaction. The remainder of the panel focused on speakers talking about the need for a similar training program here in Chicago. It most certainly would not be a bad idea. A little self-reflection can go a long way. And if mediation skills can provide that self-reflection, then I’m all for it.