Branford Community Foundation Goes Out on a Limb

Wikipedia defines an innovator as “a person or an organization who is one of the first to introduce into reality something better than before.”  The Branford Community Foundation can be viewed as an innovator in the chance they took supporting an initiative of Community Mediation, Inc, a non-profit agency that has worked in the New Haven region for over 30 years to provide mediation, facilitation and training services in order to create a more peaceful community.

Although Community Mediation is one of the oldest mediation agencies in the nation and has been an integral part of the New Haven regional community for many years, many citizens are still skeptical about the utility and success of its services – not the Branford Community Foundation.  As the Executive Director of Community Mediation, I wrote proposals to three foundations in 2009 to set up a comprehensive conflict management system in the town of Branford.  The idea sprung from a meeting of the then police chief, John DeCarlo, and our Associate Executive Director and lead trainer, Joe Brummer (also a resident of Branford.)  They both expressed enthusiasm about the idea of training police officers and taking mediation referrals for neighborhood disputes.  We met several times and created a comprehensive plan that included the participation and enthusiastic support of the 1st Selectman, Anthony DaRos, and the Superintendent of Schools, Hamlet Hernandez.

The plan was to train police officers in restorative justice and effective communication, town hall staff in facilitation, school staff in how to create the compassionate classroom and students in peer mediation.  Another aspect of the plan was to handle referrals from the police, town hall and the schools for cases that were difficult to handle in-house or did not have clear legal, zoning, or school policy implications.  Two of the Foundation to whom we applied did not understand the project, did not think it was feasible and/or did not have faith that Communication Mediation could really make a difference.  As a result, Community Mediation had to cut the program back to simply taking referrals from the police for repeat call issues that had underlying, long-term conflicts.

The funding received from the Branford Community Foundation allowed us to make some headway into the community and the police agency.  Detective Dan Travisano, head of  Branford’s Problem-Oriented Policing sent us several referrals of cases in which he was receiving repeat calls from one or several parties to a conflict and which did not lend themselves to police intervention.  Community Mediation called several residents and, to our surprise, sometimes the simple task of listening to them on the phone ended the escalation and calls to the police.

Community Mediation staff understands that oftentimes people simply want to be heard and know that someone understands how they feel.   Giving residents undivided attention and time enabled them to take a deep breath, take a step back and reevaluate the situation.  Some of these cases never reached mediation and did not need to.  We were doing a job that the police did not have the time to do.  Their resources were better utilized elsewhere.

Once case, however, involved all of the residents of a particular street.  The conflict involved beach rights and had devolved into threats, name-calling, installation of cameras, property destruction and repeated calls to town hall staff and the police.  Happily, the majority of residents agreed to participate in mediation sessions at the police station.  The first session was full of high emotion and accusations (as they often are.)  Despite this, the parties did make progress and, again, felt relieved that their perspectives had been heard.  At the end of the first two-hour session, Detective Travisano approached me and stated, “I cannot believe how much progress you made in two hours.  I thought this was going to be a waste of everyone’s time.”

Six months later, the residents had crafted an agreement about several issues.  They all agreed that the process had been painful and laborious at times and that they had benefited greatly from participating.  Many residents stated that they now feel like their home is their sanctuary again, rather than an uncomfortable place to return to each day.  Several participants also commented that relationships with their neighbors had improved as a result of the sessions.  Chief Halloran wrote a letter stating that, prior to Community Mediation’s intervention, they had spent 47 man hours in the previous 24 months on that street alone (we do not have the figures for how many hours town hall spent dealing with issues there.)  Since the date of the first mediation session in August, 2011 to the present time, there has been no need for police presence.

Open and honest communication with the intent to work hard on creating a collaborative agreement makes a world of difference to a community. As a result of these successes, the current police chief, Kevin Halloran, the former police chief, John DeCarlo, and the Criminal Justice Department at the University of New Haven have spearheaded a federal grant proposal to research the efficacy of Community Mediation/police partnerships both in terms of resident and police satisfaction and the reduction of calls to the police.

We thank the Branford Community Foundation for their support and enthusiasm in making this partnership between Community Mediation and the Branford police possible.  CM looks forward to a continued relationship with Branford.  If you are experiencing difficulty with a conflict in your own life, please feel free to contact our organization for more information about using our services.

Written by: Brenda Cavanaugh, Executive Director of Community Mediation, Inc.