How to End Cycles of Violence

Restorative justice is improving police culture and public safety.

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In June, Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) speakers, staff, and allies attended the National Association for Community and Restorative Justice Conference in Denver. More than 1,500 direct service providers, government and law enforcement professionals, community organizers, and people impacted by the justice system gathered to share and collaborate on the work we’re all doing to advance restorative justice principles.

Restorative justice (RJ) isn’t a “program”, but rather a philosophy. It is a set of guiding principles to shift the ways we administer justice and manage institutions. In traditional RJ “circles” or “conferences,” trained facilitators create a safe environment for the victim(s), perpetrator(s), and those impacted by the crime or infraction to communicate openly. Circles may take place over months or years, depending on the crime, and allow victims to confront those responsible and help decide how to hold them accountable. This process empowers victims to take charge of their healing and produces real accountability on the part of perpetrators.

Research shows RJ reduces recidivism and justice system costs and produces higher rates of satisfaction among crime survivors, when compared to satisfaction with the traditional justice system. RJ originates in indigenous communities around the world and has gained popularity in recent decades following the release of several books, including The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr (2002).

On Saturday of the conference, Captain Christopher Dennison represented the Tucson Police Department in Arizona on a panel discussion of how RJ principles can be used within government agencies. Under Chief Chris Magnus’s leadership, the department created an RJ-based discipline model for employees. The new model creates a more clear distinction between misconduct and mistakes, something the old process didn’t do.

To help determine whether a serious misconduct violation took place, they ask the question, “Could someone else have reasonably made this mistake?” Then, the supervisor, the responsible party, and any affected individuals come together to communicate openly about what went wrong and how best to hold the person accountable. The previous system had been so focused on serious punishment with little room for interpretation that people were afraid to admit wrongdoing, Dennison explained. The new program has reduced re-offending and created a more accountable culture in the department. Rather than immediately taking a defensive stance, responsible parties are more forthcoming about their mistakes and look forward to making things right. As a result, officers have safer and more productive interactions with civilians, and the people they serve have more trust in officers and the system at large. The program is a perfect example of how RJ principles can be applied to police discipline.

Capt. Dennison [left] describes the Tucson PD’s new RJ-inspired discipline model.

After Capt. Dennison’s panel, the entire conference gathered in the main ballroom for lunch and a plenary presentation by MOTUS, a Colorado-based theater company featuring personal stories as a way to facilitate dialogue about critical current issues. In this performance, seven formerly-incarcerated people each read a monologue about their experiences going through the justice system. Six of them were accompanied on stage by public officials and law enforcement — including prosecutors, police, and a state senator — who volunteered to read portions of the monologue at their side. They came together at the end for a personal Q & A session. The result was a powerful display of what’s possible when the movement to change the justice system builds bridges. Going into the performance, the public officials were not required to fully empathize or understand the experiences of the individuals whose monologues they were reading. But after sharing the stage to tell that person’s story, several said they gained new perspective about the ways in which the system — and their work— impacts those affected by it in a practical sense. One prosecutor even said she wants to bring the performance to her office.

MOTUS Theater Q & A with formerly-incarcerated people and public officials

On Sunday afternoon, LEAP speaker Chief Mike Butler used a program he co-founded with local service providers 25 years ago as an example of how to create RJ-based programs. He spoke to a group of community organizers and told the story of the Longmont Community Justice Partnership’s implementation, its challenges, and successes. Through the LCJP, Longmont PD officers can refer cases — most commonly misdemeanor theft, assault, and public fighting — to trained facilitators who bring all affected parties, including the perpetrator, together for restorative conferences. Everyone discusses how to best hold responsible persons accountable and how to support those who may have been hurt by the crime. In their 2018 annual report, the LCJP noted 96% of conference participants in last year’s 97 cases believed the responsible parties were held accountable in the restorative process.

Chief Butler uses the LCJP as a case study for how to implement RJ programs.

This conference reminded us of the power of storytelling. Drug policies, excessive incarceration, and the rift of distrust between police and communities can all be repaired. As the voice of pro-reform law enforcement, we at LEAP will continue to elevate the voices of those with personal experience working in this system and continue to build bridges with those who have been impacted by failed policies.

In reflecting on this conference, we are left with gratitude for the RJ philosophical framework and the indigenous cultures that first developed it. As we steer away from policies that have made the justice system less effective at healing victims and reducing crime, RJ is the compass to guide us toward the safer future we all envision for our communities.

Mikayla Hellwich is the Speakers Bureau & Media Relations Director for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), and Amos Irwin is LEAP’s Program Director.

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