Police, critics trade views
3rd-party mediation helps bridge divide, resolve complaints
Criss Duran was shocked when a police officer handcuffed her and put her in the back of his squad car for allegedly stealing a car.
Duran was innocent. The officer had failed to find out that the car he thought had been stolen had been returned to its rightful owner. But the incident made the 50-year-old Duran afraid of police, leaving her with the memory of the officer's hand on the handle of his gun.
Yet instead of getting a lawyer as her friends advised, she met the officer in a mediation session. And he apologized.
Her case is one of a growing number of police-misconduct allegations that Denver's Office of Independent Monitor has steered toward mediation, making it one of the most active police mediation programs in the nation.
Richard Rosenthal, Denver's independent monitor, said the program is the essence of community-oriented policing.
"This is the only kind of formal way to bring community members and officers together to talk about their problems," Rosenthal said. "For every citizen that mediates and is no longer angry with the department, that's another supporter in the community to help the department accomplish what it wants to accomplish."
In the past year, the city has brought officers and their accusers together in library rooms, community centers and city offices to hash out complaints under the guidance of professional mediators.
The cases assigned for mediation range from racial-profiling complaints to an accusation that an officer providing off-duty security failed to help a dog locked in a car.
Duran said it meant a lot for her to extract an apology from Officer Gordon Seib and to get a chance to tell him to his face how scary it was when he put his hand on his gun's handle.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God, this guy's going to hurt me,"' she recalled.
She also got a chance to hear Seib's side of the story and learned that he was trained by superiors to be ready to pull out his firearm any time he's dealing with a potential car thief.
"In mediation, he said that's standard procedure when they have a stolen car involved and they don't know whether the person inside has a gun or not," Duran recalled.
In someone else's shoes
Seib, who was a rookie in his first two months on the job when he apprehended Duran, said he also found the mediation helpful.
The session gave him a chance to explain to a civilian just how dangerous a traffic stop can be for an officer, especially when a stolen car might be involved.
"I still have it in my mind the Colorado Springs officer killed in a traffic stop," he said.
He also learned that what seems minor to an officer schooled in the ways of the streets can have a big impact on a citizen.
"I learned that maybe you should clean out your ears a little bit and listen a little bit more," Seib said.
The two shook hands after the session, and Seib invited Duran to consider riding along with him or another officer some night to get a better idea of what police work entails.
Other citizens and police who have gone through the program praise it, saying talking face to face is far better than the impersonal system that existed before when complaints were handled by the department's internal-affairs officers.
Surveys show that 74.5 percent of citizens were dissatisfied with the old discipline process and 63.7 percent of the police officers were dissatisfied.
Of the nearly 40 cases handled through mediation last year, 15.9 percent of citizens and 10.9 percent of officers expressed dissatisfaction.
"You can see a softening in both their faces and their body posture that represents to me an understanding and empathy in both directions," said Jackie Moorhead, a mediator who has handled some of the mediation sessions.
Moorhead said that in one case, a teen complainant left agreeing to get involved in a junior cadet program at the urging of the officer he once disliked intensely. In another case, an officer and a complainant found out they belonged to the same neighborhood organization.
Moorhead says the mediation sessions are more likely to change an overzealous officer than is an admonition from a supervisor.
"This is a normal community member who is relaying what this experience was like," she said. "It has a great deal of impact.
"It also gives community members insight into the world of a police officer. It can be: 'Last fall, I almost got shot."'
Denver's a leader
More serious allegations still are handled through a formal internal-affairs complaint system, Rosenthal said, but he hopes to eventually drive the number of cases mediated in Denver up to 10 percent of all citizen complaints against officers.
Even some excessive-use-of- force cases could be ripe for the new program, Rosenthal said.
Denver police Officer Russell Olin said he originally was skeptical about going through mediation to meet Nick Sanchez, now 20, who accused him of wrongly arresting him during a Colorado Rockies baseball game.
"It was a positive experience for me," Olin said. "I got to see the other side of the coin. It will definitely benefit me to be a better police officer in the future."
Denver has joined a handful of other cities experimenting with mediation as a way to resolve some complaints against police.
Last year, Denver mediated 39 of its 614 citizen police complaints, one more than the amount mediated in Washington, D.C., which has a police force more than double the size of Denver's.
"Denver's one of the leading agencies in the country in terms of its mediation program," said Philip Eure, the executive director of the office of police complaints for Washington. "However you compute the stats, Denver's in the top tier."
The only city that mediated more cases last year than Denver was New York, which has a far larger police force of 35,000 officers. That city mediated 137 allegations of police misconduct last year.
Unlike business cases of mediation, the police mediations don't strive for an actual settlement or written agreement. There's also no actual punishment against an officer.
The mediator meets with the officer and the complainant and gives each a chance to air their side. The mediation conversations are confidential, and admissions of wrongdoing can't be used to file criminal charges or for litigation.
"We ask questions to help them step into each other's bodies and perspectives," Moorhead said. "We ask them to really listen to one another and withhold judgment."
In the end, usually apologies come from both directions, she said.
Justin Ross, 32, said his mediation session helped ease the bitterness and anger he felt after two officers made a traffic stop against him that he believes was a case of racial profiling.
"They did acknowledge how, being in my shoes, it came across to me," said Ross, who is black and owns a mortgage company with his wife. "They were very receptive and very apologetic."
He added: "It also allowed me to step back and breathe easy and see what it was like to be an officer."
Staff writer Christopher N. Osher can be reached at 303-954-1747 or firstname.lastname@example.org.