News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘See each other as human beings’ : Police mediation program aims to restore community trust

Jamaal Johnson is one of 12 Fort Worth residents participating as mediators in a new community-police mediation program.
Emily Wolf
Fort Worth Report
Jamaal Johnson is one of 12 Fort Worth residents participating as mediators in a new community-police mediation program.

Jamaal Johnson and his wife moved to south Fort Worth in 2018. A year later, former Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson inside her home.

A Black man born in East Texas, Johnson, 33, was no stranger to negative interactions with the police. He recalled growing up seeing his father pulled over without reason by officers, and then experiencing the same kind of targeting as a teen and adult. Those experiences left him pessimistic about policing.

Years of frustration came to a head Oct. 16, 2019, when he addressed City Council members following Jefferson’s death. How, he asked, are Black people in Fort Worth supposed to feel safe in their own homes?

Nearly five years later, Johnson’s perspective has started to shift. Since he spoke to council, he and his wife have welcomed their first and second child.

“I realized that the anger and frustration that I had built up toward police due to my own interactions, and also due to the things that were happening federally and locally, weren’t serving me or my community — more specifically, my family,” he said.

Now he’s channeling his energy in a different direction. Johnson is one of 12 Fort Worth residents in the city’s inaugural class of community-police mediators. Whittled down from a 27-person applicant pool, the remaining dozen were subject to 45 hours of training over six days. Four Fort Worth police officers have joined the program as ambassadors.

The program is simple — it allows a resident and officer involved in a conflict to speak candidly to one another in the presence of a trained mediator. It acts as an alternative to the traditional disciplinary process officers are subject to following a complaint.

“When looking at the mediators, we were looking for people that were able to remain neutral,” Bonycle Sokunbi, director of the Office of Police Oversight Monitor, said. “That is the No. 1 most important thing.”

How do residents participate in the mediation program?

In order for mediation to take place, a resident must have filed a formal complaint with either the police department or Fort Worth’s police oversight office. Not every resident-officer dispute is eligible for mediation; the process is designed for lower-level concerns such as discourtesy.

Getting the mediation program started is the first initiative the oversight office has undertaken since Sokunbi replaced former director Kim Neal in September. Initial funding for the program was secured during Neal’s tenure, Sokunbi said. Both the Fort Worth Police Department and the Fort Worth Police Officers Association support the initiative.

“We know through research that punishment is not the only way to institute change and isn’t often the best way,” she said. “And so allowing the people involved in a conflict to bravely enter into a space to discuss that conflict, brings about the change that we want to see in this situation, which is restoring relationships and trust.”

Role-playing scenarios and spreading the word

Greg Hughes, 67, has lived in Fort Worth for 37 years. A self-described “collector of experiences,” Hughes applied to be a mediator both because he’s never done anything like it before and because of a personal interest in how Fort Worth handles policing.

“I have no idea what I’m getting into, but that’s never stopped me before,” he said.

Hughes said his mother brought him up to believe there were always at least two sides to a story — and during mediation training he saw that firsthand. A core component of the training was role-playing different mediation scenarios. One scenario in particular stood out to him.

Hughes was assigned to play a character who, late to an appointment, honked at an officer blocking the entrance to a doctor’s office while writing someone a ticket. The officer, played by a police ambassador, appeared to curse at Hughes’ character. During the course of the mediation, the officer explained how something as simple as honking could distract an officer and potentially put them in danger.

“That’s where having an officer play a real role is so valuable, because that took me aback a little bit,” Hughes said. “I had never considered that in a police officer’s daily routine, just what a small distraction could mean.”

Greg Hughes, a community-police mediator, stands in front of a mural at Black Coffee on March 11, 2024.
Emily Wolf
Fort Worth Report
Greg Hughes, a community-police mediator, stands in front of a mural at Black Coffee on March 11, 2024.

Fort Worth Police Officer Joanna Lopez is one of the program’s police ambassadors. She, too, pointed to the honking scenario as a learning opportunity. Before the training, she said, she didn’t realize how little residents know about police policy.

“I noticed that a lot of people don’t see where we’re coming from, why we do what we do,” she said. “For others’ safety, for their safety and for our safety.”

Lopez joined as an ambassador after another officer explained the program to her. She’d heard of mediation between family members or neighbors, she said, but never between officers and civilians. She thinks it’s a good idea with a lot of potential.

“It’s just so new,” Lopez said. “In anything, you start from the bottom. And now what all the ambassadors are doing is spreading it in small talk with officers, our colleagues, just telling them about this new program.”

Protecting neutrality

Rose Charles, 39, said she joined the program as a mediator out of a desire to get more involved in her community.

A city of Fort Worth employee, she was surprised to learn during training that many gestures people take for granted can interfere with mediation. Something as simple as a nod, she said, can destroy the appearance of neutrality.

“And so that’s something that you have to be really mindful of when you’re at the table, especially with two opposing participants,” Charles said. “You never want to lose neutrality. It’s little things like that, and just checking your body language because simple things that you do in real life, you don’t want to bring to the mediation table.”

The importance of neutrality was pounded into mediators during the training, Johnson said. Both officers and residents need to feel comfortable in the space, and embodying neutrality in all aspects of your behavior helps set the tone.

“(They) have to feel comfortable that when they come to the table, my prior experiences, or … the prior experiences of the officer ambassadors, aren’t going to cloud the process,” he said. “I want the officer sitting there to know that I’m going to treat the process with respect, but also hear everyone out equally and foster a productive conversation.”

Taylor Davis is the mediation program coordinator for the Office of Police Oversight Monitor.
Emily Wolf
Fort Worth Report
Taylor Davis is the mediation program coordinator for the Office of Police Oversight Monitor.

Taylor Davis is the mediation program coordinator. She said the program uses an inclusive model of mediation, designed to hone in on feelings and emotions to get to the core of the conflict and find a solution.

“At the end of our conversation between the community member and the officer, there’s not necessarily always going to be a written agreement,” she said. “Sometimes it’s OK to just have a better understanding of one another.”

Mediation isn’t a fact finding expedition, Sokunbi said. At the end of the day, it’s about the people involved knowing they’ve been heard.

Restoring trust

On the first day of mediator training, Johnson faced an immediate dilemma — whether to sit in an open seat beside one of the police ambassadors.

“My anxiety from past experience didn’t allow me to sit beside him,” he said. “So I chose the seat that was closest to the door.”

By the end of the training, Johnson considered the officer in question a friendly acquaintance, if not a friend. That wouldn’t have happened without the training, he said.

“We were able to see each other as human beings, get to know one another,” Johnson said. “Laugh, joke, have emotional moments. And, now, I would obviously choose to sit beside him. If he ever needed anything, I would definitely be quick to pick up the phone.”

Restoring trust is one of the primary goals of the mediation program — and it’s a two-way street. Lopez said as an officer ambassador, part of her job is to help fellow officers understand that the program isn’t meant to be adversarial.

“I want this program to blossom,” Lopez said. “For civilians and officers to know that it’s out there, and for officers to not feel that they’re being attacked by civilians.”

Sokunbi knows the program won’t take off overnight; it will take time to spread the word and make people feel comfortable with the process. While she’d love to see a large number of complaints converted into mediation, she said, that’s not the only measure of success.

“If we have one or two officers who come in and say, ‘Hey, I understand and I would do this differently,’ and we have one or two three community members who understand and say, ‘I think I can actually trust the police a little bit more,’ then that’s success,” she said. “I’d like nice big round numbers, but honestly, it’s one at a time, one day at a time.”

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or via Twitter.

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She grew up in Round Rock, Texas, and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in investigative journalism. Reach her at for more stories by Emily Wolf click here.