Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Council to debate proposed mediation program

Thursday’s Fresno City Council agenda is packed with interesting items. Council members (and reporters) will be lucky to get home before Friday.

Some thoughts on one of those agenda items:

The council is slated to vote on Council Member Larry Westerlund’s proposed Public Safety Mediation Program. Westerlund unveiled the proposal last week at a news conference, then presented a detailed review of it at the Oct. 25 council meeting.

Westerlund delivered a fascinating oral report, and did so with style.

The program is simple, at least on the surface. A citizen upset with how he was treated by police in a routine matter — say, a traffic stop — now goes through a complaint process that allegedly is opaque and emotionally unsatisfying. Mediation, Westerlund says, would be quicker, cheaper and more effective for citizen and officer alike.

Fresno Police Officer Association President Jacky Parks isn’t quite as enthusiastic. Westerlund and Parks probably will be discussing their differences right up to Thursday’s meeting.

* Where is Police Chief Jerry Dyer in all this? Dyer wasn’t at Westerlund’s news conference last week. He wasn’t at the Oct. 25 council meeting. Mediation is suppose to be entirely voluntary between citizen and officer. However, the police chief has authority to unilaterally cancel a mediation meeting, even if citizen and officer have already agreed to meet. It’s hard to see how the council could approve the program without questioning Dyer on his thoughts.

* What is mediation? And what is a mediator? I understand that in today’s hyper-therapeutic culture, I’m supposed to automatically know the definitions for both. Just like everyone is supposed to automatically know the hard-and-fast definition of human rights. But the definition of human rights is a minefield. And I suspect mediation and mediator are, too. To me, both mediation and mediator are full of vague, touchy-feely assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with touchy-feely. But it’s unclear whether touchy-feely has a role in settling disputes between citizens in a democracy and a law enforcement agency charged with maintaining legal order in a society that sometimes rejects personal responsibility.

* Will traffic cops bear the brunt of the mediation process? Capt. Andy Hall and Sgt. Richard Tucker of the police department’s traffic division sat in the back of the council chamber during Westerlund’s Oct. 25 presentation. Hall and Tucker chatted with Parks when everyone broke for lunch.

* Why will the mediator have more power than the police auditor? If approved, the program probably would hire mediators trained at Fresno Pacific University. Now, keep in mind that the police auditor — whose presence at City Hall is the result of some 15 years of political warfare — has no authority to conduct his own investigation of an officer’s actions in the line of duty. The police auditor can only review how the police department itself handled the investigation of the officer’s actions, then make recommendations on how the investigative process or officer training could be improved. The mediator, on the other hand, will sit at a table behind closed doors with the officer and the citizen. The mediator will do whatever mediators do, performing his job based not on edicts from the City Council or parameters determined through administration-FPOA contract negotiations but on lessons learned from mediation professors at Fresno Pacific University. After listening/refereeing the citizen-officer chat, the mediator will then pass judgment on the affair. “Successful Mediation.” Or “Unsuccessful Mediation.” The judgment then goes into the officer’s personnel file. My point isn’t to get into the weeds of what could happen to an officer’s career under the current complaint procedure and compare this risk to the benefits of mediation. My point concerns investigative authority withheld from a police auditor who works for the city and is beholden to the city manager/mayor vs. investigative authority given to a mediator beholden to nothing other than the possibility, should he anger City Hall, of being dropped from the roll of potential mediators for future gigs. Make no mistake, the power to issue a verdict of “Successful Mediation” or “Unsuccessful Mediation” in something deemed as important as public safety mediation is an authority to be cherished if you can get it. As you learn early in journalism school, the power in society to determine method of measurement is the ultimate power. “Successful Mediation” and “Unsuccessful Mediation” are units of measurement on the actions of individual police officers in the line of duty. The police auditor must be green with envy.

* Where do I go with my state Public Records Act requests? The mediation process itself is to be completely confidential. Reporters (or lawyers) can’t get information on what happened. If I recall correctly from Westerlund’s Oct. 25 presentation, reporters can’t even learn the names of the mediation’s participants. Council Member Andreas Borgeas raised the media-mediation issue during a Q&A with Westerlund. But I am indifferent to whether the participants were citizen John Doe and officer Jane Jones, and the beef was over their behavior during a traffic stop. I want to know stuff that is surely subject to the state Public Records Act. How many formal citizen complaints are deemed not to rise to the level of mediation? How many times did a citizen and an officer agree to mediation, but Dyer killed the idea? How many women vs. men had their complaints go to mediation? How many women vs. men could have gone to mediation if Dyer hadn’t killed the idea at the last minute? How do these statistics stack up by race and ethnic background? Do south Fresno residents get more mediation than north Fresno residents? Does the traffic division get more mediation requests than, say, homicide? Which division with the police department gets the most “Unsuccessful Mediation” judgments? Such questions go on and on. Answers will generate important departmental trend stories rather than “he said, she said” stories over mundane matters that quickly get boring. I’d like to get the information quarterly, if you please.

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