Years ago, I mediated a case involving alleged police brutality. I’ve mediated several of them, but this one stood out from the rest. The plaintiff (the alleged victim) was African American and fairly muscular. The two officers, the defendants, along with the department, were Caucasian.
His story was that they took him to be a burglar, coming out of an apartment building late at night. They were sitting in their patrol car, when he came out the front door. When he turned to walk away from them toward his car, right away he heard their rapid footsteps coming down the sidewalk behind him. Anticipating what was coming, he dropped to his knees, and still facing away from them, he put his arms up, then laced his fingers behind his head, into what he called the international position of submission. He said he didn’t want to cause the officers any more alarm than he felt they were already feeling.
The rest of his story was that they took a billy club to his shoulders, back, and back of his head, cuffed his hands where they were behind his head, and dragged him backwards down the sidewalk by the handcuffs, and intentionally slammed his head against the patrol car when shoving him into the back seat.
The officers’ story, I’ll never know. They didn’t come to the mediation. Their commanding officer and someone from internal affairs or human resources was there, and perhaps a union representative (it’s been many years now). Their story was that the arrest was done by the book, and that the plaintiff was faking his injuries. They insisted that his injuries were consistent with self-inflicted wounds, though after his release, the hospital report was inconclusive.
At the mediation, we learned two significant facts. First, that there had been a history of racial strife in that neighborhood for a couple of years between the largely Caucasian police division, and the largely African American population. And second, that the plaintiff owned a healing clinic, and had devoted his life to helping people reduce stress and anxiety and find more inner peace through everything from meditation to counseling to somatic techniques like yoga, massage, and reiki.
When I asked him what he’d like to see happen that day at the mediation, he said that he felt very sorry for the officers. When I reminded him that he was the victim, he agreed, but said that he had been meditating on it, and couldn’t imagine the huge amount of fear, stress, and anxiety that these two officers must be under on a constant basis, in order for them to have treated him the way that they did.
Being a mediator, it’s not my job to determine who I think is telling the truth, or who is right or wrong. It’s my job to help them find the best possible mutually agreeable solution. My personal take on it is that in every case, I try my best to dig as deep as the participants will let me, in order to uncover their deepest interests or needs, and be as creative as I can to help them get those resolved, often in a way that money alone can’t.
In this case, he offered to accept enough money to pay his lawyer for having to file the case (because the department hadn’t been responsive when he tried to reach out to them directly), and then to offer to treat the two officers in his center. He wanted to prove to them, and to the department, that he and his team of professionals could so significantly reduce the stress level of these officers, that it would change their lives. Then, being an entrepreneur, he added that if he could do that, maybe the department would send more of the officers from that division, which could, in turn, reduce tensions in the entire neighborhood.
We could never get the department’s brass to sign off on the proposal, mostly saying that they couldn’t agree to anything that would single out the two officers and create the perception that they did anything wrong. I used all of my persuasiveness, and so did the plaintiff’s counsel, who was himself incredibly enlightened and collaborative. He explained that absent such a creative solution, the price to settle the case would multiply, given the risk that a jury might side with his client. But we could not overcome the department’s strong interest in defending and protecting their own. They saw that as their job, and it’s hard to argue with that.
In hindsight, I feel like we missed a turning point back then. Obviously, this week’s recent events bring this all to light again. But when I look at the rash of civilian killings by police, and the barbaric targeting of the Dallas police officers, I see an opening. I see tragic events that might create just enough public outcry and awareness, to allow people in important positions to see the overriding need for healing and decompression and creating a bridge of peace in our communities.
Fortunately, I am not alone. In Los Angeles, a group called the Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles, in concert with Mediators Beyond Borders and the Southern California Mediation Association, have been holding very successful meetings throughout the city called, Days of Dialogue – the Future of Policing in Los Angeles. Every city should have such a program. And those in Los Angeles, should pick one out and attend it.
We need to take back ownership of our country, and that begins one city at a time. And by ownership, I don’t mean government control, police power, or civil disobedience. I mean that We The People need to step in and help each other to have dialogue. Please think about what you can do for your part. I certainly know what my role is.