Baltimore is planning to put police officers face-to-face with people who have filed complaints against them.
Mediation sessions, meant to open up communication and improve police-community relations, could start within the next few weeks. Trained mediators are to run the sessions.
"Mediation might be, 'I just want my voice to be heard,'" said Kisha Brown, director of the city's Office of Civil Rights & Wage Enforcement. "I think people underestimate the importance of having your voice heard."
Organizers say citizens have complained that the current process is bureaucratic and left them frustrated. In that process, the citizen makes a complaint and it's investigated by the Police Department's division of internal affairs, but the citizen and the officer never meet to discuss the dispute.
Mediation, in contrast, emphasizes dialogue.
Sessions will be private and kept confidential, according to Chief Rodney Hill, who leads internal affairs.
Hill and his staff will decide which complaints to recommend for mediation. He said the majority are likely to be about discourtesy. Participation will be voluntary; no one will be required to enter mediation.
The death of Freddie Gray in police custody last April, and the protests and riots that followed, drew new attention to the strained relations between the city's police officers and the community.
Brown, whose office oversees the city's Civilian Review Board, says she began exploring mediation before Gray's death. Cities including New Orleans, Denver and Washington have offered similar programs.
The development of a police complaint mediation program was among the 22 recommendations released in January by a legislative task force exploring police reform in Maryland.
Samuel Walker, a retired professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, interviewed people who had used citizen-police mediation in cities around the country as part of a study for the U.S. Department of Justice.
"It's a very promising alternative, but it takes very careful management," said Walker.
Walker said it's important that the mediation be voluntary for all participants. He said mediation should not be used for excessive force complaints. (Baltimore officials say mediation could be used for any complaint, but is likely to be used most in situations where a person complains that a police officer was rude or treated them disrespectfully. The Police Department declined to release the policy that will guide the program, saying it was still in draft form.)
Participants must be carefully screened because "if somebody doesn't want to be there, you're just asking for failure," Walker said.
"There are some complainants who are so angry, understandably, that they're really just not going be productive," Walker said. "There are some officers that are so belligerent that it's not going be productive to use it with them."
But when both sides are open to the idea, he said, the result can be "magic."
Lorig Charkoudian, executive director of Community Mediation Maryland, said the sessions offer "opportunity for deeper understanding."
"Everyone gets to speak about their experience," she said. "Often, people talk about race in a very painful but constructive way."
Officials say no one will be forced into mediation, and the sessions will be confidential.
"You want people going into it with the right attitude," Hill said.
A representative of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents Baltimore officers, has been involved in discussions about the mediation program, according to the department.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the union, did not respond to a request for comment through a spokeswoman.
Confidentially laws will prevent the Police Department from learning the details of the mediation session. The department will learn only whether the participants were satisfied with the process.
If mediation is successful, the case will be closed and the complaint will be listed as "not sustained."
If unsuccessful, the complaint will follow the normal internal investigative process — "as if mediation never existed," Hill said.
Mediation has been used successfully in a range of disputes: divorces, labor and business disputes, and disagreements between neighbors.
Community Mediation in Baltimore will provide trained mediators. Changa Onyango, executive director of the group, said they would help provide a neutral environment for participants to have a "human-to-human interaction."
A mediator does not take sides, he said.
"The transformative power of mediation is so important because it allows people to hear what the other person is saying," he said. "You can just really feel that moment when someone says 'Oh, I didn't know that you were dealing with that.'"
Hill said he hopes the process will help break down stereotypes by letting officers and residents see each other's perspectives.
He said the police officers can become hardened by the negativity that comes with the job.
"No one calls the police to report that their kid just made honor roll, that their son just got into college," he said. "You call the police because of something bad."
"It can develop into an us-versus-them because all you're dealing with as an officer is negativity, and police are human."
The city has allocated about $70,000 for the first year of the program, Brown said.
Most complaints against police officers are closed without discipline. According to the Police Department, internal affairs investigated 799 cases in 2015. Of those, 113 cases were sustained.
"Often, there's not enough to prove the allegation," said Charkoudian. Mediation, she and others said, should at least help citizens feel they've been heard.
The Calvert County Sheriff's Office launched the state's first police mediation program — Operation True Perspectives — in 2010.
Sgt. Jay Goldsmith said the traditional process often left both sides frustrated.
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"Often times [the police] become defensive because they feel like, 'Wait a minute. I didn't do anything wrong,'" he said. "You've got an upset citizen, you've got an upset officer. …
"You still have that barrier there, and it just compounds an unhealthy relationship," he said. "Whereas when you have mediation, people can talk it through."
At first, he said, mediation "was a very, very foreign concept for police.
"And it took several cases to occur for them to start to realize maybe this isn't such a bad thing."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.