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Here’s what you need to know about St. Louis’ Office of Community Mediation

An illustration of a group of four people sitting around a table.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen last week took a big step toward adopting one of the recommendations in the Ferguson Commission report.

By approving the Office of Community Mediation on a 26-0 vote, the city is embracing the idea that with a little help, communities can handle some disputes on their own, rather than relying on the police or the judicial system.


What is community mediation?

Mediation is defined as “a method of settling disputes outside of a court setting” or “the imposition of a neutral third party to act as a link between the parties.” Most people likely think of it in the context of unions, when a mediator might be brought in to help negotiate a new contract.

Community mediation also involves neutral third parties. But the focus is a little different.

The idea has been around since the 1960s, when the U.S. Department of Justice created the Community Relation Service as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Community mediation was constructed to help people address conflicts productively and constructively, and really at that grassroots level, where people could address the conflict themselves and not rely on another party like the police or the courts to have to make the decision for them,” said Michelle Zaremba, the coordinator at the Dayton Mediation Center in Ohio. “This is really an opportunity for citizens to come together and say well, this is what works best for us.”


How will the St. Louis office work?

The details are still being worked out, but the bill sponsored by Alderwoman Carol Howard, D-14th Ward, houses the Office of Community Mediation in the office of the city counselor.

Its director will review requests or referrals for mediation, and determine if they’re the best fit for the process. If the case seems ripe for mediation, the director will turn it over to a team of of trained volunteers, who will contact both sides and see if they are interested.

Those volunteers will handle a variety of disputes — anything from a tree dropping leaves into a neighbor’s yard, to two city employees who aren’t getting along, to a resident who thinks a St. Louis police officer disrespected them.

Most programs that are connected to the government in some way are court-based, Zaremba said, and don’t handle disputes between neighbors.

St. Louis has had a mediation program since 1998, but it has never had full-time staff.

“Having a full-time director as a city employee will give it a basis because that individual has a responsibility 24/7 to be able to support it,” said John Doggette, who has run the program without pay for the last five years.


How does community mediation work?

"A lot of disputes revolve around the fact that people have lost the ability to talk to each other,” said Madeline Franklin. In addition to her role as the executive director of a small nonprofit that helps older St. Louis residents stay in their homes, she has been a volunteer mediator for a year.

“By co-mediators bringing the party to the table, giving people an opportunity to look each other in the eye, to shake each other’s hand, I think that’s certainly a success in and of itself,” she said.

Trained mediators like Franklin follow the same six steps every time. The process is voluntary and anyone can walk away at any time. It’s also completely confidential.


Does mediation actually work?

An April 2017 analysis of Dayton’s community mediation program found that in instances where police encouraged mediation, calls for service to a location dropped in half, even if the two parties didn’t go through an official mediation, Zaremba said. If the two parties do go through the official process, calls for service are nearly eliminated — even if they didn’t reach an official agreement.

The director of St. Louis’ Office of Community Mediation will track things like how many mediations are done every year. But because the entire process is voluntary, a low number doesn’t mean the office isn’t working.

Doggette, the long-time volunteer mediator, said a city encouraging meaningful and constructive conversations is just as important a change as body cameras when it comes to changing how people feel about institutions like the city and its police.

“This is, in fact, what I call community policing, when we do a citizen-police mediation. This is what I call healing a community when two individuals, neighbors are not getting along, all of those things are the success, one by one,” he said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.