Citizens Police Review Board to assemble police-citizen mediation program

Monday, June 20, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Citizens Police Review Board is beginning to shape a mediation program intended to build trust and understanding between police officers and residents.

The review board is examining existing programs in Minneapolis, Kansas City, Denver and San Francisco to paint a picture of what a program tailored to Columbia might look like.

The review board discussed those other cities' mediation program structures to learn which types of cases often go to mediation, whether and how they're resolved and whether mediation sessions should be confidential.

Review board Chairwoman Ellen LoCurto-Martinez said mediation in most cases will deal with "minor incidences of misunderstanding or rudeness" in police officers' interactions with residents. It wouldn't apply to incidents involving Tasers or other uses of force.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton agreed during a June meeting of the review board that it's important that mediation be off limits in use-of-force cases. He said the Police Department has an entire internal system to deal with those sorts of complaints.

The most common complaints, Burton said, are from residents who say an officer was gruff or rude. Often, complainants will say after further inquiry that an officer didn't smile, he said.

Forty-six of these "courtesy complaints" were filed by the public in 2010, according to the Police Department's External Complaints Report.

Deborah Doxsee, an independent mediator invited to advise the review board, said using mediation to resolve complaints about rude officers will strengthen community trust with the police.

Board member Carroll Highbarger, a former deputy police chief for Columbia, said one aspect of the Kansas City mediation process is that it requires residents to waive their right to file a more formal complaint or to request an investigation. That, he said, gives officers no motivation to engage in a dialogue.

“If I were a police officer, I’d wanna mediate in a New York minute and sit there like a bump on a log, 'cause I know when I walk in and sit down, I’m clear,” Highbarger said.

Board member Susan Smith disagreed. She said the purpose of the program is to air issues, so being able to pursue a complaint after mediation is self-defeating.

The review board also must decide whether mediation sessions will be confidential.

Jim Levin of the MU Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution said he thinks they should be.

“I think confidentiality is very important in mediations because it requires frank discussions, and people are going to be hesitant to be open if reporters are there, if it’s open, if everyone’s there, if it’s open to the public," Levin said.

Levin said allowing the resident to bring a non-lawyer advocate could help keep attitudes in check.

The board also will need to recruit and train mediators and find someone to oversee the program. Doxsee said she expects many people in the Columbia area who are trained in counseling or facilitating will either volunteer or work for a small stipend.

She estimated an administrator would spend no more than eight hours per month to handle all the program's cases.

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