Meet the People Who Keep New Yorkers From Ripping Each Other’s Heads Off

April 10, 2015 | Christian Brazil Bautista

Harmonious co-existence is a lofty aspiration for a city as cramped as New York. To help establish peace, and to keep New Yorkers from strangling each other, mediators are scattered across the five boroughs, solving conflicts between families, neighbors and community members.

Mediation is not like most legal proceedings. For one, it won’t cause your life savings to evaporate as you appear in front of a judge. In fact, the whole point is to shield people from $200 attorney hourly rates. “The idea is to give people an alternative to going to court, to save people money so that they don’t have to spend their precious resource on lawyering up,” said Brad Heckman, the CEO of free mediation service New York Peace Institute.

Mediation is similar to marriage counseling, only compressed into a two-hour session and possibly with strangers. The matter at hand can be as simple as deciding who picks up the kids during certain days or as complex as bringing together two people on opposite sides of an assault charge. “Mediation is particularly useful when family members, neighbors or business parties have a dispute. It may be inappropriate if one party has a significant advantage in power or control over another, or where safety is an issue, such as in domestic violence cases,” the New York State Unified Court System, which funds mediation services like NYPI, said in a statement sent to ANIMAL.

If someone calls 311 often enough, for say, noise or school-related complaints, they may be redirected to mediation. This means that the service sources most of its clients from the courts. “Cases are referred by the judge or court referee but either party may request that the judge refer the case to mediation,” the court system statement read. While mediation has an established route for the court system, it is still mostly unknown with the general squabbling populace. NYPI hopes to change that. Heckman expressed a desire to increase their current workload of 10,000 cases per year.

While mediation may seem very official, for the most part, it is not. Everything that is revealed during a mediation session, except when there is the possibility of child abuse, is inadmissible in court. Also, unlike in traditional courts where a winning side usually emerges, the goal of mediation is to broker a settlement between the parties involved. In most cases, the agreements made during the proceedings are legally non-binding and are as informal as an apology.

“Many of the things that are mediated fall outside the four corners of a contract,” Heckman said. “For example, if you go to court and one of your issues with your neighbor or your family member is that you don’t feel like you’re being treated respectfully… There’s not a judge who can say ‘I hereby order you to be nice to this person.’ So we pick up where the law leaves off. It’s really on the human relation side where mediation comes in.”

This puts mediators in the middle of personal conflicts that have festered for years. Glen Parker, the Manhattan civil court coordinator for NYPI, recalled a small claims court case where a monetary demand turned out to be something more complex. The lawsuit involved a woman who wanted $5,000 from her mother-in-law. “It was unclear what that $5,000 represented… It wasn’t clear what her legal claim was,” he said.

Instead of ruling on the case, a small claims court judge recommended mediation to both sides. During the first three-hour session, the underlying conflict was revealed. The plaintiff lost custody of her teenage son and the boy moved in with his grandmother. Her whole reason for bringing up the case was so she can spend time with her son.

“She just wanted a relationship with her son, but she didn’t have any other way to get it,” Parker said. “At the mediation, it was the first time she had spoken to her son in five years… She was so grateful to be in the presence of her son.”

In spite of several angry outbursts, the two sides came to an agreement. No amount of money changed hands and no contracts were drawn up. Instead, the matter was resolved for the courts when the boy agreed to call his mother on her birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This kind of hidden complexity is constant in the cases that mediators handle. “We’ve had cases in which there were neighbor issues that started around things like noise and ended up being cultural clashes,” Heckman said.

“We had a few cases in which people in the building might be practicing Santeria or Voodoo as their religion and their neighbors were freaked out by it because it’s different from their own upbringing or their own cultural context. Through having a mediation session they realized, ’Okay, this is not my cup of tea but it’s not Satanic ritual slaughter.’”

Culture clashes and racial tensions adorn the favorite war stories of mediators. Heckman recalled a juvenile case where two teenagers were caught setting fire to a community garden. The perpetrators, white kids from privileged backgrounds, burned down a beloved structure in a poor African-American community. On the surface, the incident appeared to be a hate crime. However, mediation revealed a very different story.

“In this particular case, the young men who perpetrated the crime had to listen, in a circle, to everyone in the community talk about the impact this had on their lives. How their act of vandalism destroyed a sacred community space and how children are afraid to go out now for fear of some violent acts,” he said.

“The kids had no idea. From their perspective, they thought It was a cool place to have a bonfire, to hang out, chill out a little bit. It caught fire and they freaked out and they left. And they thought, ‘Alright, no big deal. We’ll pay the fine and that’s it.’”

Eventually, it became clear that the perpetrators were not racist, they were just dumb teenagers who made a dumb decision. To make amends, they offered to help rebuild the garden and speak at local schools about fire safety. The session ended with a group hug.

A kumbaya moment is the desired outcome, however, some cases end with people just agreeing to hate other from a distance. In a place like New York, that’s as good an outcome as any.

(Photo: New York Peace Institute)