ST. LOUIS -- If you think a city cop was rude, cursed at you or treated you unfairly, you might have a chance to hammer out your differences in a face-to-face chat.
St. Louis police are running a pilot program aimed at resolving bitter but relatively minor conflicts between citizens and officers. So far, the department has resolved 15 complaints through mediation since the program started in October 2011, said Lt. Scott Gardner, an internal affairs commander.
In a sense, it's a grown-up version of settling fights on the school playground.
"The main goal is to improve the relationship between the community and our policemen," said Gardner, who decides which complaints go to mediation. "It brings people to the table."
Issues resolved through mediation have included officers accused of screaming at people, having a bad attitude or speeding, Gardner said. Cases settled through mediation represent just a fraction of allegations made against city police. Most are handled through internal affairs investigations.
John Doggette, director of MediationSTL, a service offered by the Mennonite Peace Center of St. Louis, says the goal is to provide a safe and confidential alternative to formal inquiries.
"It's an opportunity for them to have a conversation they would never have had in any other situation," Doggette said.
He said he is not aware of any other such programs in the St. Louis area.
For the public, it offers people a chance to explain why they are angry. For police, it allows officers to resolve complaints quietly and keep them off their personnel records.
Both sides must consent to resolving complaints with a meeting, understanding that neither side "wins." Rather, the officer and accuser talk through their differences, monitored by a mediator. Anything more serious -- such as accusations of police brutality or racial discrimination -- is handled as before.
St. Louis' program, which began under former Chief Dan Isom, has never received funding to become a permanent process. But Doggette says he hopes city leaders consider establishing a formal program in the future.
"The potential is phenomenal," Doggette said. "People need an opportunity to have a civil discourse instead of getting upset."
On Monday, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where Isom is now a faculty criminologist, hosted a panel that runs a bigger program in Denver. There, more than 360 conflicts have been resolved through mediation since 2006. Denver's program is a collaboration involving its city police, county sheriff and the nonprofit Community Mediation Concepts, which is based in Colorado.
"The officers really appreciate the chance to sit down and explain themselves rather than getting tagged with a complaint," said Steve Charbonneau, executive director of Community Mediation, which provides services to several Colorado departments under contract.
Denver police Sgt. John Bronson, a union representative, said Monday that mediation has allowed officers to avoid internal investigations and trim the department's estimated $50,000 in monthly legal bills.
Samuel Walker, a retired University of Nebraska-Omaha criminal justice professor who co-authored a 2002 study for the Justice Department, said most cases referred to mediation are those that usually cannot be proved through internal affairs. He said mediation for minor complaints is cheaper because it doesn't take up as much time conducting interviews or collecting evidence.
"The standard complaint-investigating process typically leaves both sides unhappy, especially because of the delays, and both sides think the whole process is stacked against them," he said. "It tends to be dysfunctional."
Cities with established programs include New York, San Francisco, Kansas City, Washington, Denver, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas. Walker said a "startling few" departments in large cities have established programs; he urges more to invest in it.
"A lot of victims just want to express their point of view to tell (police) how upset they are," Walker said. "People who have done mediation say it's just magic. The two sides get to see each other as people, rather than stereotypes."
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said she was unaware of the program but supports any effort that fosters communication between police and residents. She said it is particularly important to build police confidence with people who one day may be jurors deciding drug cases in which officers are often the only witnesses.
"Police credibility is the whole thing," Joyce said. "St. Louis has a ways to go with citizen respect for the police. The more positive view that the public has of the police, the more they're going to be receptive to what the police say on the witness stand."
Joel Currier is a breaking news reporter for STLtoday.com and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter here: @joelcurrier
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