Dayton’s first-of-its-kind mediation responder program has only been up and running for about three months but some officials say it has been so successful they want to expand it and add more staff.
“We’ve been talking about this for years, of trying to get to situations quicker in the conflict to try to help out,” said Michelle Zaremba, director of the Dayton Mediation Center. “It’s been so powerful to have the (Mediation Response Unit) come out to each house and work with people as they’re in the middle of this crisis.”
Since May 23, the Dayton Mediation Response Unit has been dispatched to non-violent calls involving conflict such as disputes between neighbors, troubles between family or friends and complaints about noise, pets, juvenile disturbances, loitering, panhandling and other issues.
Unarmed specialists handle these calls instead of police, which gives officers more time to focus on other public safety concerns.
The pilot program also seeks to reduce interactions between police and community members that have the potential to escalate, sometimes leading to use of force or other undesirable outcomes.
The program was one of the recommendations of a committee involved in the Dayton police reform efforts.
This program gives Dayton residents new tools to deal with difficult situations without encountering the criminal justice system, said Dayton City Commissioner Chris Shaw, who was co-lead of the police reform committee that recommended creating this new unit.
Many cities across the nation have created alternative responder programs that send non-police first responders to certain kinds of 911 calls and calls for service.
But the programs typically focus on mental and behavioral health issues and crises, while Dayton’s program focuses on mediation, which hasn’t been done before, said Daniel Kornfield, executive director of Dignity Best Practices, which helped set up Dayton’s pilot program.
“No other city in the nation has tried this,” he said. “Here now, after three months in the field, I can say it is working.”
In the first two months of operation, the mediation response team handled about 210 calls for service, and many were tied to neighbor problems (19% of total calls); noise complaints (14%); and peace officer requests (13%).
Other common types of calls involved disorderly subjects, juvenile concerns, welfare checks, parking complaints, barking dogs and other concerns.
The mediation response unit has responded to about 400 calls for service since launching.
The Mediation Response Unit’s budget is about $1.02 million, said Raven Cruz Loaiza, Dayton’s mediation response coordinator. About $875,000 comes from the city’s general fund, and about $150,000 is grant funding.
The program currently has the capacity for six responders and one coordinator, said Cruz Loaiza. She said it would cost nearly $665,000 to add five more responders. Ideally the long-term idea would be to provide 24/7 coverage, every day of the year.
Mediation responders often can get to calls for service about nonviolent conflict more quickly than police can because officers tend to have a backlog of calls and they respond in an order based on urgency and priority level, officials say.
Mediation specialists respond to what tend to be lower-priority police calls.
In one example, the mediation response unit arrived at the scene of a call about a woman loitering on a bench within 15 minutes of receiving it, Cruz Loaiza said.
Unit members spoke with her and learned she had medical issues and was sexually assaulted the night before,
“She was able to be transported to a local hospital to have her sexual assault kit complete,” Cruz Loaiza said. “That might not have been connected if maybe there had been a longer response time or if it had been lower on the list of things to do at that time.”
Specialists also helped resolve an ongoing dispute that stemmed from kids regularly retrieving a basketball that kept bouncing into their neighbor’s yard.
Mediation unit staff purchased and installed a net for a hoop in the backyard, and the kids started playing there instead, solving the problem, officials said.
Before the pilot program launched, some community members said they were worried mediation specialists might be sent to some potentially dangerous emergencies that urgently required police.
Some people also said it is extremely important that officers respond when citizens request and want police.
But citizens in only 4% of the calls the mediation unit handled asked for police to be dispatched, Kornfield said.
Also, he said, mediation specialists in only 3% of their calls felt the need to request police because they were worried about safety.
Dayton police Major Christopher Malson said the program already has seen “buy in” from the police department, whose members regularly request the mediation response unit’s assistance.
“If you listen to the (police) radio all day, you start hearing police officers asking, ‘Is MRU working? Can they stop by this call? Can they help us out?’ ” he said. “It’s good to see this early on.”
The Mediation Response Unit currently works between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday. But that will change to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. by the end of September.
Officials say they are interested in adding additional two-person teams to provide better geographic coverage and operate the program during more hours of the day.
“I think we’re ready to see expansion of the program,” said Zaremba, with the mediation center.
One unit covers the east and west geographic areas of the city, which takes a significant amount of time to travel between, she said.
She said they would like to have units assigned to geographic areas and responders available at other hours as well.