Trouble in town? Send in the Maroon People!

Somewhere in Dayton, Ohio, a 13-year-old girl was sassing her mom, who was concerned about the strangers her daughter was talking to on her phone. The mom reached over and snatched the phone out of her daughter’s hand. The daughter started yelling. Fearful that the situation could come to slapping, the mother called the police.

But Dayton had recently launched its Mediation Response Unit (MRU) to take nonviolent 911 calls. Instead of police, two mediators showed up quickly at the house, wearing their signature MRU maroon shirts and carrying only radios and pamphlets of resource information. One mediator went upstairs to talk to the daughter while the other stayed in the kitchen to talk to the mother. Then the mediators 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. Far from slapping, mother and daughter laughed, cried, hugged each other, and apologized. No one got violent. No one went to jail.

This is one of the many small but significant successes the Dayton Mediation Response Unit has had since its launch in spring of 2022. The MRU was born out of community conversations in response to the George Floyd murder. About 120 people, a mix of city, police, public defenders, community members and 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Since then, the MRU has taken many phone calls originally made to 911 but deemed “low-level.”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 in the moment and 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 notes. “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 cost.

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

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.