Boston leaders and community activists have long called for more and better ways to handle civilian complaints of police misconduct. The news that the Boston Police Department is developing a third-party mediation program in conjunction with Harvard Law School shows that the department is serious about building better bridges with the community.
The initiative, with its nonadversarial approach, would draw from a pool of mediators at the Harvard Mediation Program at Harvard Law School and would tackle minor disputes like allegations of bias, unprofessional or discourteous conduct, and abusive language. The idea is to hold a mediation session in a neutral location; a trained mediator would facilitate an interaction between both parties in hopes of reaching a resolution, which can be as straightforward as a simple apology.
But other details of the program are still being tweaked, and there is some negotiating left to do with police unions. For example, the police department says it won’t force any officer to attend a mediation session. Rachel Viscomi, who is assistant director at the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program and who worked with the Boston police to develop the initiative, agrees. “Mediation should always be voluntary. I can imagine any police officer would appreciate the opportunity to hear from citizens [about] why they acted the way that they did,” she says.
Skepticism about such a program is understandable. The Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, the only mechanism for civilians to complain outside of the police force, has been largely ineffective since its inception in 2007. But Mayor Walsh recently announced an overhaul of the panel, and the mediation program provides yet another option.
In deploying an expert resource like Harvard, the Boston Police Department is acknowledging that it doesn’t have all the answers, and is showing that it is committed to more open, transparent relationships in the community. Ultimately, that will only make Boston’s police force stronger.