HEATED arguments can end in violence. Police often are called only after the worst is over. But new police training in mediation skills is helping disputants to settle their own differences before the point of crisis.
To date, mediation has taken hold most strongly in the legal system, easing court caseloads. Many police view mediating disputes as a time-consuming process they cannot afford. But with the rapid spread of community policing - the return of officers to a neighborhood beat - police are becoming more receptive.
The community policing focus on early identification of neighborhood problems is likely to lead to the mediation of more disputes at the budding rather than the blossom stage, says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation.
"I think with community policing we're going to see a lot more mediation," agrees Dr. Maria Volpe, a sociologist with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and coordinator of its dispute-resolution program.
An offer 18 months ago by the American Association of Retired People (AARP) to provide police with free mediation training by American Bar Association (ABA) experts has also generated new police interest. The AARP wants to help them understand and communicate better with an older population often stereotyped and intimidated by police, explains senior program specialist John Bordenet.
Police have not responded overwhelmingly to the AARP offer, concedes Larry Ray, director of the ABA's Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution. Still, his team has helped train hundreds of police officers in mediation and improved communications techniques. Only about one-third of the officers "really buy into it," he says.
The need, says Mr. Ray, former director of the mediation program at Ohio's Capital University Law School and a former prosecutor, is to help teach police when to respond to disputes with strict controls and when to use more subtle methods and how to distinguish between the kinds of people dealt with. "Treating all citizens as if they were tough people just doesn't work," he says.