From its plain brick headquarters on Greenmount Avenue in North Baltimore, a small nonprofit has long helped people resolve routine neighborhood or family disputes. Now the Baltimore Community Mediation Center has been asked to play a key role in the city’s police reform effort.
The center is charged with working to improve the relationship between the community and the police department. It’s part of the independent monitoring team assembled by city and U.S. Justice Department officials to oversee changes, including more training for police and investments in better technology, mandated in a federal consent decree.
U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who approved the monitoring team last month, said in an order that the mediation center was asked to join the process “to ensure that the community’s voice is heard throughout the implementation of the Consent Decree.”
At its helm, is Shantay Guy, who left a lucrative job as a technology project manager at T. Rowe Price to pursue mediation as a way to heal the community after the 2015 riots.
Guy said she was driving home with her son near Druid Hill Park as rocks and other debris flew between police officers and upset young people, including something that struck her car. Her phone had been off and she was unaware that rioting had broken out after Freddie Gray’s funeral.
In the days and weeks after the unrest, she realized she wanted to get involved. “The universe is really telling me that I need to be doing something different, something more,” Guy said.
The consent decree followed a sweeping investigation by the Justice Department ordered after Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody. Federal investigators concluded that city police had systemically violated the rights of residents, disproportionately targeted African-Americans, stopped people without proper justification and violated people’s civil rights.
The monitoring team is led by Kenneth Thompson, a partner at the Venable law firm, and includes Charles H. Ramsey, a former chief of the Philadelphia and District of Columbia police departments, and other lawyers and former law enforcement officials.
Guy said she couldn’t discuss her organization’s role in the consent decree without the judge’s approval. Bredar declined through a court spokeswoman to comment.
But in a statement released shortly after being named to the monitoring team, the mediation center said it plans to “develop a team of volunteers drawn from various segments of Baltimore’s population to ensure appropriate and authentic community engagement” in the process.”
It said the group will “engage with both the community and monitoring team using the non-judgmental, confidential and transparent methods, rooted in inclusive and empowering values, that we use every day to help Baltimore residents have difficult conversations.”
Guy described the wide-ranging impacts the organization has had in the community for more than two decades. The center has 67 volunteer mediators who hear disputes from across the city. Some mediation sessions involve disagreement that arise between neighbors, soon to be released inmates and their families, and parents and the school system.
“Our goal is to reduce interpersonal and physical violence because we realize that folks won’t always agree with each other on everything,” Guy said. The group’s perspective, she said, is that “we don’t see conflict as negative.”
The group completed more than 600 mediation sessions last fiscal year in libraries, churches, recreation centers or anywhere that doesn’t feel punitive, Guy said. She said the volunteer mediators undergo 50 hours of training and then complete several mediations under the supervision of experienced mediators.
One of its mediators, Erricka Bridgeford, launched the “Baltimore Ceasefire” event that urged 72 hours without bloodshed as the city reached 188 homicides. While violence continued, the campaign for peace garnered widespread support, with many communities hosting vigils, cookouts and other events across the city. A second event was held this month.
Baltimore Community Mediation was called in 2016 to help mediate between Western District police officers and district residents. The group also helped facilitate youth/police dialogue circles that began in 2015 and continue today.
“Our officers got to hear the young people out, and the young people got to hear the officers out,” said police department spokesman T.J. Smith. Beyond that, he said, “We may never know how many disputes were resolved that didn't end up leading to a violent crime.”
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The nonprofit moderated two community forums on the consent decree.
“We reflected back what people were feeling and what was important to them and articulated the points that were being made. And we do that in a lot of cases,” Guy said.
“What’s important to us is making sure every side feels heard and understood.”
Paul Jackson, who struggled with drug addiction for 20 years, said it strained his relationship with his mother and stepfather. But after he and his parents sat down for two mediation sessions this year, he said they couldn’t be closer.
“I haven’t had this type of relationship with my parents in years. Right now, I couldn’t be in a better place,” said Jackson, 49.
He said mediation is something that can be beneficial to everyone.
“If you come in there with an open mind, it will work out for you,” he said.