The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 2 | Issue 3 | March 2009

Discourteous Cops and Unruly Citizens: Mediation Can Help

Mediation Group Achieving a healthy community-police relationship should not be viewed as simply a “warm and fuzzy” or “touchy-feely” aspiration, but rather a necessary objective of any police department. A largely positive relationship between a department and its residents results in safer neighborhoods. Much research suggests that the health of police- community relations (or lack thereof) brings with it very real and quantifiable consequences (see generally Skogan and Frydle, 2004). When community members hold negative perceptions of police (whether justifiably or not), they are:

Citizen complaints against the police are inevitable, given the often confrontational nature of police-citizen interaction (Wagner and Decker, 1997). Feelings that the police were discourteous, biased in their actions (sexist, racist, etc.), violated one’s constitutional rights, or used excessive force frequently lead to mistrust of police officers and a reluctance to cooperate with them or call on them in times of emergency.

Mediation in Denver: As an objective and neutral civilian oversight agency whose mission is to increase public confidence in Denver, Colorado’s law enforcement, it is our responsibility to promote policies and initiatives that enhance police-community relations. For the past 3 years, the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM), in concert with the Denver Police Department, has managed a successful community-police mediation program as a way of resolving police complaints that alleviates misunderstandings, fear, mistrust, trauma, anger, and resentment. In effect, mediation programs should be seen by police departments as contributing to a larger goal of improving community-police relations, which is essential to enhancing neighborhood safety.

The Internal Affairs Bureau of police departments is charged with investigating citizen- and department-initiated complaints. Traditionally, Internal Affaiars would investigate a citizen complaint and command staff would make a finding and, where appropriate, impose discipline. As such, Internal Affairs serves as an internal control mechanism used by departments to assist in managing their employees’ behavior. While there have always been questions concerning the difficulty of proving misconduct one way or the other, there were simply no alternatives for dealing with citizen complaints. Unfortunately, this traditional method of complaint-handling, more often than not, has left both complainants and officers dissatisfied with the outcome and process. Ill feelings generally remain unresolved; mistrust of the police department lingers.

Recently however, there has been some movement toward a more conciliatory and nonadversarial model of complaint handling. That model is mediation. Mediation involves bringing both parties face-to-face in a neutral and confidential setting to discuss the specifics of the complaint. The meeting is facilitated by professional mediators who attempt to get the parties to a point of mutual understanding concerning the actions that led to the complaint (Clemmons and Rosenthal, 2008).

As the essence of community policing, mediation has the potential, and often does, to improve the relationship between complainants and officers one case at a time. Mediation helps prevent an unpleasant experience a citizen might have with one officer from resulting in a negative perception and attitude toward all of law enforcement. In addition, a successful mediation can extend the repaired relationship to the community member’s family and friends, some of whom might have been adversely affected by the complainant’s personal experience.

The use of mediation in handling citizen complaints against the police is a relatively new phenomenon that is still in its early stages. As of 2002, there were approximately 16 citizen/police mediation programs in operation around the country (Walker and Archold, 2002). Now, there are even fewer.

In the fall of 2005, the OIM implemented a citizen/police mediation program and has since completed more than 150 mediations. We have found that mediation is far more likely to lead to satisfaction among complainants and officers than the traditional complaint-handling process. It also is more likely to result in fewer future citizen complaints against a particular officer than traditional methods, and is more likely to result in a timely resolution when compared to formal investigations.

In his groundbreaking publication, Mediating Citizen Complaints Against Police Officers: A Guide for Police and Community Leaders (2002), Professor Sam Walker argued that mediation programs should be evaluated to assess their efficacy. We were able to evaluate our program with respect to three of Walker’s evaluative questions.

Research Question #1: Are citizen complainants more satisfied with mediation outcomes and processes compared to traditional complaint-handling outcomes?

Research Question #2: Are police officers more satisfied with mediation outcomes and processes compared to traditional complaint-handling outcomes?

Research Question #3: Do police officers who resolve complaints through mediation have fewer citizen complaints filed against them?

We added an additional research question not derived from Walker’s research but one that is important to answer for evaluation purposes:

Research Question #4: Is case-resolution time faster for mediation cases compared to other case types?

The OIM evaluated 126 mediations and 3 years’ worth of data.

Satisfaction with the traditional complaint-handling method was measured using external surveys1 of citizens and officers that asked: 1. How satisfied were you with the outcome you received? and 2. How satisfied were you with the complaint process in general?

Satisfaction with mediation among citizens and officers was measured using internal mediation participant surveys2 that asked: 1. How satisfied were you with the outcome of mediation? and 2. How satisfied were you with the mediation process in general?

The results for research questions 1 and 2 are provided in Figure 1. Mediation participants—both officers and complainants—have statistically higher rates of satisfaction for both outcome and process compared to the traditional complaint-handling method.

Complaint Handling Chart

Our third research question sought to determine if mediation has a positive effect on officer behavior as evidenced by a decrease in the number of citizen complaints. We measured five variables: total complaints, total allegations, discourtesy allegations, force allegations, and improper procedure allegations.

We found that complaint and allegation counts decreased significantly for both the experimental and control groups, though the decrease was far more pronounced for the experimental group. This meant that mediation proved to be more effective in helping officers to avoid future citizen complaints than disciplinary-track methods such as informal and formal case handling. While we have not measured the reasons why this occurred, we can surmise (based on anecdotal evidence) that officers who participate in mediation often see their actions from the citizen’s perspective, better understand the impact of their behavior on others, and are more likely to buy into approaching their work differently. In other words, the officers have learned why and how to self-correct in mediation and apply this more readily than officers whose complaints have been handled through traditional means.

The final research question asked whether case processing time would be faster for mediation cases than other case types. To assess this, mediation cases were compared to formal and informal cases. Results showed that mediation cases were resolved, on average, in 58.7 days compared to 132.6 days for formal cases and 49.8 days for informal cases. The difference in case processing time was statistically significant between mediation and formal cases.

Based on our evaluation, we strongly recommend that police departments develop and implement citizen-police mediation programs. Doing so should increase complainant and officer satisfaction, lower complaint rates, and improve case timeliness. These gains will drastically enhance the efficiency of the Internal Affairs Bureau and improve police- community relations, which lead to the primary goal of keeping communities safe.

The authors have a longer related article, "Denver's Citizen/Police Complaint Mediation Program: A Comprehensive Evaluation" available through the oim website at


Anderson, M. C., T. Knutson, H. Giles, and M. Arroyo, “Revoking Our Right to Remain Silent: Law Enforcement Communication in the 21st Century,” in Law Enforcement, Communication, and the Community,” ed. H. Giles, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002.

Clemmons, A. and R. Rosenthal, “Mediating Citizen Complaints: The Denver Program.” The Police Chief 75 (8) (2008): 32–36.

Giles, H., J. Fortman, C. Dailey, R. Barker, V. Hajek, M.C. Anderson, and N.O. Rule, N.O. (2006). “Communication Accommodation: Law Enforcement and the Public,” in R.M. Dailey & B.A. Le Poire (Eds.). Applied Research in Interpersonal Communication: Family Communication, Health Communication and Communicating Across Social Boundaries, ed, R.M. Dailey and B. A. Le Poire, New York: Peter Lang, 2006: 241–269.

Skogan, W. and K. Frydle. Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence. National Research Council Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2004, xiii–413.

Tyler, Tom R. Why People Obey the Law. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Wagner, A.E. and S.H. Decker, “Evaluating Citizen Complaints Against the Police,” in The Police in America: Contemporary Readings in Law Enforcement, ed. G. Alpert and R. Dunham, Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland, 1988.

Walkers, S. and C.A. Archbold, “Mediating Citizen Complaints Against Police Officers: An Exploratory Study,” Journal of Dispute Resolution, Vol. 1, 2001.

Walker, S., C.A. Archbold, and L. Herbst. Mediating Citizen Complaints Against Police Officers: A Guide for Police and Community Leaders. Web Version. Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2002.

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