Melinda Burrell: Trouble in town? Send in the maroon people

Somewhere in Dayton, Ohio, a 13-year-old girl was sassing her mom for expressing concern about strangers she had been talking to on her phone.

When the mom reached over and snatched the phone, the daughter started yelling. Fearful the situation could lead to slapping, the mom called police.

Dayton had recently launched a Mediation Response Unit to take non-violent 911 calls. So instead of armed officers in uniforms, two mediators showed up in their signature maroon MRU shirts, carrying only radios and pamphlets.

One mediator went upstairs to talk to the daughter while the other stayed in the kitchen to talk to the mother. Then they asked if they could bring the mother and daughter together talk to each other, which they did in the living room.

The mom explained how scared she was for her daughter, and the daughter explained how important the phone was to her for talking to her friends. Mother and daughter laughed, cried, hugged each other, and apologized. No one got violent and no one went to jail.

The MRU was born out of community conversations in response to the George Floyd murder. This is one of the many small but significant successes it has had since its launch in spring of 2022.

About 120 people, a mix of city officials, police officers, public defenders and community leaders discussed alternatives for responding to 911 calls. Eventually they contacted the Dayton Mediation Center and, over the course of months, devised the MRU.

Since then, the MRU has taken many phone calls originally made to 911 but deemed “low-level.” Think of noise complaints, neighbor disputes, barking dogs, loitering, and unruly juvenile complaints – situations that would take hours for police response, but to which the mediation team can respond quickly.

The mediators de-escalate the situation, then connect the callers with counseling or even return later themselves to offer more support.

“This is not one-and-done,” explains the Dayton Mediation Center’s director, Michelle Zaremba. “We stay in touch with people as long as they need. We are letting people know they have more options than calling 911 when something bad happens.”

One impact of the MRU is helping people understand they don’t need to use violence in a dispute, or call the police, or threaten attorneys.

Another way is frequently a far better response. Often, police are called for a disturbance but cannot do anything because it is a civil, rather than criminal, complaint.

“At first, the police were resistant to this,” Michelle said. “We worked hard to show them we’re not trying to defund the police.

“Now the police call us on the radio to ask for support. We’re helping people who need a mediator’s skills, but also pulling calls from 911, so the police can focus on what they need to, and callers don’t wind up going to jail and getting criminal records for small things.”

And all of this is possible with far less money than additional police units would have cost.

Though it’s been less than a year, already word about this effective alternative is getting out. “Send the maroon people!” is being heard more and more.

Melinda Burrell, syndicated though PeaceVoice, is a former humanitarian aid worker and trained in mediating conflict through communication. She serves as vice-chair of the National Association for Community Mediation.


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