Y’alternative Dispute Resolution with Texas Police.

I had the great pleasure of spending last week training a group of amazing police officers from the Conroe Independent School District, and mediators from the Montgomery County Dispute Resolution Center. In Texas! Pictured above are challenge coinsa gift from the officers. They’re used in elaborate rituals called coin checks in such places as bars and saloons, resulting in someone buying rounds of beverages.

Fun fact: 40 miles north of Houston, Conroe more than doubled in size since 2000, making it the fastest growing city in America…and not without growing pains, as the city and its environs become more divers along all kinds of identity lines.

I landed this opportunity when a bunch of mediators and an officer attended a speech I gave at Sam Houston University in Huntsville, Texas about our Police Mediation Partnership, and one thing led to another. Big thanks to the JAMS Foundation for championing our police-community work during these divided times…your support is allowing us to pay the idea forward beyond New York City.

The officers in the Conroe initiative primarily work in schools — dealing with everything from students cutting class (aka runners!), fights, cyberbullying, regular bullying, faculty-student altercations, parental issues, and drug-related crimes. This program is helping to build a vibrant relationship between police and the local mediation center and enhancing officers’ use of words to de-escalate conflicts, like unto our work in NYC.

This was cool: I got a police escort every day to the training (well, not a motorcade but I did get to ride in the front of the cop car, prompting the hotel staff to ask if I kept getting lost.)

The gig also entailed training trainers to build capacity within the department and create a critical mass of police mediators. Lucky for me, a bunch of experienced mediators from the fabulous Montgomery County Dispute Resolution Center attended as well.

Here are a few scenes from my week in Conroe:

This is mediator Jim and Sergeant Julie. In a roleplay they created, they shoehorned every Texas cliché they could into their characters (partly for the benefit the yankee in the room). To wit: a baby named Roscoe, kissing cousins, Waffle House, the Piggly Wiggly and a double-wise trailer with polyester curtains and a redwood deck (it’s from a song!). Of course, in mediation, we get to see people defy and transcend stereotypes.

The officers came up with a bunch of other conflict scenarios they regularly encounter. Here we have Corporal Mike de-escalating a high-intensity traffic stop with mediator Barbara, whose character was intent on refuting the police’s authority. What could have ended badly resulted in smiles and empathy.

Here we are having a ball.

 Officers here are mediating a faux dispute between students, involving gossip and dissing — IRL and on the internets — culminating in a physical altercation. They did an amazing job surfacing the students’ common issues — belonging, reputation, being good students — avoiding an arrest or disciplinary action, and eliciting good will between the kids.

Which officer wore it better? Trick question, They both did. (If you look carefully, it’s not exactly the same shirt, but on the other hand, come on, it’s pretty much exactly the same shirt.)

Here I am being schooled on the various meanings of “bless your heart.” (Short version: it’s not always a compliment. Context matters. Kind of like fugghetaboutit in New York.)

One day I walked into the classroom to find this enormous Texas police duck, to contrast with my tiny NYPD duck. Indeed everything, including waterfowl, is bigger in Texas.

And the police ducks kept coming.  One might call this — wait for it —  the duck side of the force.

With visionary Sgt. Julie and amazing Officer Brandy (who, in addition to being a natural mediator, plied us with homemade Texas tea cookies on the reg. I also split my pants getting into a cab back in NYC, which I blame on Officer Brandy.)

I spent one day working with a smaller group of officers and mediators, training them to train others. I felt like a magician blabbing my secrets as I exposed the method behind my lunacy on how to appeal to different learning styles. I’m so excited to hear how the newly minted officer-mediator co-trainers will do. Pretty sure they’ll nail it….combining the conflict resolution expertise of the mediators with the real-life experiences of the officers. By the way, the cops and mediators, for the most part hadn’t met pre-training, so it was wonderful to see the two communities coalesce.

With our official Sam Houston University sunglasses, here I am with Elaine Roberts, the Executive Director, heart, soul and brains of the Montgomery County Dispute Resolution Center. I learned so much from Elaine and her team. They mediate about a thousand court-mandated case per year, and also do all kinds of creative things….including a super-popular kid’s bookmark competition among students, an anti-bullying pledge, and a Twitter hashtag initiative called #IMediateBecause. Mos def check these guys out.

Here’s one of the aforementioned bookmarks. Every year they get a couple thousand submissions from young artists, and disseminate 12,000 copies of the winners’ work.

We had a touching closing circle, in which I witnessed the well-earned solidarity among the peacemakers. To quote Elaine, “We are all mediators now.”

Happy trails, Conroe friends…and bless all y’all’s hearts!

PS: This just in: the  best birthday wish/rap/mediation mash-up I’ve ever received, from one of my fabulous trainees! Those of youse/y’all who took our training will get the references.

Brad….what the heck, man?
You spent 5 days bein’ awesome with us Texans
Normalizin’, Time Travelin’, and Appreciative Inquiry
I can paraphrase and reframe, but it all inspired me
I use my cow eyes and watch my tone,
But if I’m hearing you correctly, today is a big milestone
Not Hawaii Five-O, not Fifty Cent
Just a half century of being a source of encouragement
Keep being Brad…help others, be artsy
Today is about “ewe”, so go out and party
Maybe get crazy, eat lunch, have some food
Happy Birthday my friend, I think you’re an awesome dude

–Mike Fortner


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