Last week it was announced that Baltimore residents would get the chance to confront police officers face to face that they’ve had beef with, in a formal, controlled context. Many who see the Baltimore City Police Department as an occupying force in poor communities of color, have waited for this opportunity for a long time.
“Most of these mediations that are going to happen…are going to be perceived breaches of ethics, perceived breaches of policy…and for a misuse of their discretionary power,” said Ako “Changa” Onyango, executive director of Community Mediation in Baltimore.
The organization Onyango leads will play a significant role in facilitating the Police Complaint Mediation program, which is ultimately aimed at narrowing the chasm between police and some communities. The current process for citizens to file complaints against police, consists of people making a complaint against an officer, which is then investigated by the Police Department’s division of internal affairs and there is never any face to face interaction between the officer and citizen alleging the misconduct.
Manycomplain the process is cumbersome and inherently a conflict of interest. With mediation the emphasis is dialogue and the sessions are private and kept confidential by law.
Mediation has been an alternative to conflict in communities across the state for several years and in certain scenarios has had a dramatic impact.
According to Community Mediation Maryland, when individuals engage in mediation before they are released from prison, the probability for future conviction is reduced by 15 percent (after just one session) and the probability decreases further (by nine percent) with each additional mediation session. The organization also claims mediated cases are more likely to show a decrease in police and court involvement after mediation compared to cases that aren’t mediated.
Erricka Bridgeford is director of training for Community Mediation Maryland and her faith in the process is rooted in a deeply personal reality. When her younger brother, David Thomas, (her family called him “Cornbread” or “Corny”) was attending Carver high school years ago, he was confronted with a surreal blood curdling scenario.
One day while he was at school, a rented moving van pulled up in front of Carver and young, armed men leaped from the vehicle in search of Thomas. Once they located him they chased him around the school with the intent of gunning him down. They were unsuccessful.
Years later, Thomas (who at this time was in his early 20’s) was incarcerated and in what would seem an incredibly perilous twist of fate, his cellmate was none other than the lead assailant who years earlier chased Thomas around his high school with the intent to kill him. But, while the two were confined together what seemed implausible took place and it would eventually become an epiphany for Bridgeford.
“They were forced to talk it out,” Bridgeford reveals. She says her brother told her essentially, `There’s something about sitting down and looking in somebody’s face, eye to eye…I trust him.’ The two men were forced to come clean in that jail cell and what they discovered was the initial beef was all based on a misunderstanding.
The two remained close friends after they left prison and until the day Thomas died (in an unrelated incident). It’s the essence of what mediation is all about and why it can be successful and at its highest efficacy, prevent violence and/or murder.
“If you actually read the police blotter…about how people get killed, a lot of things were things we end up mediating all the time. It’s miscommunication, it’s misunderstanding. It starts from something small and then it’s built up to something big and then one tragic day somebody couldn’t take it anymore,” Bridgeford said.
“In a confidential space people are able to have conversations about whatever it is and clear up those misunderstandings.”
Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday, 5-7 p.m. on WEAA 88.9.