Significant aspects of police intervention have always included intermediary work in response to requests for assistance in handling conflict situations. While these police interventions are actually similar to those undertaken by mediators, the term ”mediation” has not typically been used to describe these police actions. For the most part, this is due to the fact that when officers have managed differences between disputing parties as a go-between, they have done so intuitively, informally, and inadvertently.

Since the 1970s, two developments have begun to transform the police use of mediation. First, police officers have been receiving a variety of more formal and deliberate training in mediation skills and techniques. As a result, they can more intentionally utilize mediation expertise in their intervention work. Second, police have increasing access to community-based mediation and dispute resolution resources. As a result, police are able to refer cases that are in need of more protracted intervention to mediation experts.


Generally speaking, mediation refers to the intervention by a third party who assists disputing parties to work through their differences and to reach mutually agreed upon understandings (Moore 2003). Within this general framework, there are many variations of how mediation is conducted. Mediation is sensitive to mediator personality, styles, training, and philosophy as well as parties’ issues and relationships and the context within which the intervention occurs. Some of these variations are subtle, others more conspicuous. For example, some mediators are very elicitive and ask the parties a variety of questions, while others are quite directive in guiding the parties throughout the session, some separate the parties, others do not, some set ground rules, others rely on the parties to decide how they would like to structure their interaction, some meet with parties before bringing them together, others do not.

As mediation has evolved, several schools of thought have emerged. Best known is the facilitative style, where mediators ask the parties questions as a way of moving the process along. Over the years, the facilitative style has been the most popular mediation style. With the increasing acceptance of mediation in court-connected programs, evaluative mediation has grown in popularity. Parallels have been made between evaluative mediators and arbitrators since evaluative mediators are more likely to provide recommendations, suggestions, or opinions. A third style that has gained traction is the transformative style. Transformative mediation builds on facilitative mediation but relies even more heavily on the parties to participate in the process and create the context for any transformation of their behavior. Finally, some mediators use narrative mediation by drawing stories out of the parties and helping them to change the stories so that the new story enables the parties to move on.

Central to mediation, regardless of style, are standards established to help guide mediators’ conduct (see Association for Conflict Resolution 2005). To understand how police use of mediation challenges conventional mediation practice, it is important to identify a few of the core standards that are of particular interest to mediation practitioners. The first is self-determination, that is, the need for parties to make free and informed choices. Unlike judges who make decisions, mediators must leave the decision making up to the parties themselves. What mediators do is provide the structure for the parties to share their perspectives, generate options, assess the pros and cons of each option, and craft understandings about the future.

The second key standard noted here is confidentiality. In order to provide parties with an opportunity to share candidly, mediators generally ensure parties that they will not discuss with others information that parties share during the mediation session, unless the parties agree that the information should be revealed. For the most part, the only communication provided to those who are not a part of the mediation is any written understanding reached by the parties.

Finally, a third key standard is impartiality. Mediators must conduct their sessions free of favoritism, bias, or prejudice. They cannot take sides; otherwise, they will lose their credibility and ability to intervene effectively.

Police Work and Mediation

With the proliferation of interest in mediation worldwide, many innovative uses of mediation have emerged, especially with the widespread growth of community dispute resolution centers. According to the National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM), there are more than 550 community dispute resolution programs in operation in the United States (NAFCM 2005). Since community dispute resolution programs aim to work closely with citizens to solve problems, reaching out to local police departments to discuss their services has been a common extension of their work. Depending on the jurisdiction, the community dispute resolution centers have provided officers with mediation awareness sessions as well as mediation skills training. They have also developed relationships with their local police departments so that police cases could be referred to their centers.

Police Officers as Mediators

As an intervention approach, mediation affords police officers an opportunity to empower members of the community. This is particularly useful for community-and problem-oriented policing, where officers are expected to work more closely and resourcefully with the community. Mediation provides them with useful tools and techniques.

When serving as mediators, police help the parties to communicate directly with each other, to think creatively about ways to manage their differences, and to sort through their options. As such, police do not assume their more traditional role of taking some action. Mediation, in fact, slows down their intervention approach since they must listen to each side and if appropriate to actually convene the parties face to face. In some instances, the police will have to shuttle repeatedly to assess the suitability of bringing the parties together. All of this is often occurring while the parties are in the midst of their emotionally charged exchanges.

Active listening is a core skill for police mediation. Police need to listen to each of the parties and let them know that they have been heard. This may mean paraphrasing, reframing, or summarizing what was said in language that helps the parties to understand the other side and to move on. It is crucial for police to remain patient, impartial, and resourceful while in the role of mediator. They need to do this while on the scene with the parties, bystanders, the media, and others looking on. In this context, the officers have little if any time to establish any trust with the parties, a core concept often referred to by mediators.

Police Officers as Referrers of Cases to Mediation

In those instances where police decide that they are not the appropriate interveners or the situation requires more protracted intervention, they can refer the matter to a variety of mediation experts. Best known of the mediation resources are the community dispute resolution programs. Here, mediators, usually volunteers from the community who have been trained, can provide assistance.

For police, having mediation resources available gives them access to additional places for referrals in the community. Instead of arresting or perhaps doing nothing, they can steer citizens to a forum where the underlying concerns triggering the episode can be discussed and explored. For the most part, the cases referred to the centers consist of the less serious criminal matters where individuals have an ongoing relationship and have agreed to work through their differences voluntarily. Community dispute resolution programs also handle felony case matters, but serious criminal matters are less likely to be referred by the police. If needed, the community dispute resolution programs can hold multiple sessions, follow up with the parties, and check on compliance regarding any agreements reached.


While efforts to increase the police use of mediation and police referrals to community dispute resolution centers have proliferated, there continues to be a dearth of empirical data. Research on the use of mediation by police continues to be largely anecdotal and impressionistic. Among the better known police efforts in using mediation are the Hillsboro, Oregon, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, police departments.

In 1996, the Hillsboro Police Department created the Hillsboro Mediation Program as part of its community policing efforts with the assistance of a start-up grant from the Oregon Dispute Resolution Commission. The program has provided mediation skills training to members of the Hillsboro Police Department and local community members who volunteer as mediators. With the exception of selected cases such as mental illness, the influence of chemical substance, or criminal, violent, or abusive behavior, police officers have referred a wide range of situations to the program involving differences among neighbors, consumers and merchants, family members, and employees and employers. As a result of the program, police are able to utilize their resources more efficiently (Williams 1997).

The Harrisburg Police Department has referred nonviolent, neighborhood problems to the Neighborhood Dispute Settlement Center of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. The program has resulted in a reduction of cost per call for the department as well as in more time for police to spend on ”proactive policing” since the program releases the officers from managing time-consuming interpersonal conflicts (Shepherd 1995, 2).

A variety of other research related to police mediation is beginning to emerge. In their research on police use of mediation in New York State, Volpe and Phillips (2003) found that the vast majority of police training consists of brief mediation awareness sessions rather than protracted skills training. They also found that, in fact, 83% of the local dispute resolution centers report receiving referrals from the police. In a recent study in Baltimore, Charkoudian (2005) found that when police refer cases to mediation, there is a reduction in repeat police calls to conflict situations. In his research on the influence of referral source on mediation participation and outcomes, Hedeen (2002) found that disputants referred by more coercive sources such as the police and courts are more likely to participate in mediation. However, he also found that the pressure to try mediation did not influence the parties to try to reach agreements any more than those referred from noncoer-cive sources.


Despite the increase in police use of mediation, a wide range of challenges continue to exist. For mediation to be valued as a core policing approach, a major paradigm shift would have to occur to implement an approach that departs from many of the conventional police practices. Mediation is a complex process. To learn all aspects of mediation, police would have to receive additional intensive training. The limited exposure to mediation provided at roll call or in isolated modules is insufficient to conduct mediation.

New reward structures that recognize and give credit to police who use mediation would have to be considered. Unlike traditional police work, where officers respond quickly and move on, mediation requires more protracted intervention that can be time consuming. In those instances where differences between parties are long standing, the challenges can be even more noteworthy since the police officers’ contact with the parties occurs at the conflict site when the parties are absorbed in their differences and often surrounded by bystanders, allies, adversaries, and the media, all of whom are interested in the unfolding events.

Quantifying police use of mediation is more difficult to do than measuring arrests and summons. For example, how would an attempted mediation be counted, namely, one where a considerable amount of time was spent but no progress made toward agreements?

The nature of police work is such that the cornerstones of good mediation practice can be readily challenged. For instance, self-determination as subscribed to by mediation practitioners may not be possible. Unlike mediation in other contexts, the bottom line is that police officers can take action if necessary by using force or arresting individuals against their will.

Similarly, impartiality may be difficult for police officers. While they can attempt to remain impartial, depending on the nature of the matter they have been asked to respond to, they may have to take sides, particularly when they have to take an action such as arresting someone.

Confidentiality is not something that officers can readily provide. Police are accountable to the public. At a minimum, they need to file reports and maintain records of their interventions. Moreover, their interventions occur on the parties’ turf with a variety of observers present.

Depending on the situation, it is almost impossible for officers to convene parties behind closed doors or out of hearing distance of others as practiced by mediation experts. Finally, confidentiality as provided by mediators may impair the ability of police to have access to pertinent information for any follow-up calls.

In those instances when police may want to refer some of their cases to mediation, there may not be any mediation resources available to police departments. While community dispute resolution centers have become widely available, they are still not present in every community.

The Future

The potential use of mediation by the police has not been fully tapped. Not only do the police have to address a variety of pertinent mediation-related issues regarding skills, training, and intervention styles, the public has to come to understand and accept police intervention that is markedly different from their traditional response. Of particular importance, additional research is needed to help identify what police can do as mediators to assist people in conflict, what works and what does not.

Next post:

Previous post: