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Unarmed mediators are responding to some 911 calls in Dayton, and police say it's working

Michelle Zaremba and Raven Cruz Loaiza of the Dayton Mediation Center.
Jason Reynolds

In Dayton, unarmed mediators are responding to 911 calls that would normally be fielded by police officers. The idea came about through police reform talks in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the protests that followed. WYSO’s Jason Reynolds spent some time with one of the city’s new “Mediation Response Units.”

Raven Cruz Loaiza and Michelle Zaremba are just starting their shift. Zaremba is behind the wheel of a SUV, and Cruz Loaiza is firing up her computer.

“I’m currently logging into the system,” Cruz Loaiza said, “so that we can see what calls are going on in the city right now.”

One of the calls involves a man and woman who have a baby stroller... and a gun.

“The man is shooting the gun,” Cruz Loaiza said. “The woman is pushing the baby stroller.”

That’s the kind of call these mediators will not respond to.

“No,” Cruz Loaiza said. “Nope. No weapons.”

Zaremba said, “We wouldn’t even go over there right now!”

In fact, that’s one of the reasons Dayton has these new “Mediation Response Units” or MRUs.

While police tackle violent crime, like shooters, mediators take care of some of the non-violent calls that get backed up.

“Anything that involves people and conflict but not weapons or history of extreme violence or aggression,” Cruz Loaiza said. “So, neighbor disputes, roommate troubles, disorderly persons.”

She says there would be a “significant delay” before police could report to the scene of some less serious situations, and she points to a call about a barking dog that came in five hours ago.

That call is still waiting for a response.

At the moment, almost 50 police calls are pending in the city, so the mediators have plenty to choose from. The most pressing non-violent call is from a landlord who is about to enter a rental property by himself.

David Ames is the landlord. He gave a tenant 24 hours notice that he needed to inspect the property, but now the tenant isn’t answering the door.

“He had somebody move in the house in September,” Ames says. “Then he had someone else move in. And then they brought a big dog in.”

Ames says he’s had issues with tenants before, and he knows how tensions can escalate. So, he likes the idea of unarmed mediators.

“This is great with the situation I have here,” he said. “I don't want anybody to start yelling at me because I know how I'll go. I'll start yelling too.”

The mediators and Ames ring the doorbell and knock, but no one answers. Finally, they enter the property, which is furnished and lived in but currently empty.

“This is a nice little neighborhood back here,” Cruz Loiaza said.

“It is!” Ames replied. “It’s great. He’s been here for a while. He just ran into financial things.”

The mediators give the landlord some brochures for the Dayton Mediation Center, and they tell him he can contact them and set up free meditation services if necessary.

“I appreciate your help,” Ames said, “And I have a whole bunch of other friends that are investors and have rental properties.”

The mediators tell Ames to pass the information along and offer him some more brochures.

The rest of the day is filled with similar calls. There’s the barking dog call, but the dog has finally stopped barking. Some homeless people were camped out in front of a residential property, but now they’re gone. In each case, the callers get information on different free services the city can provide if the issue they called about reoccurs.

At one point, there’s a call about a pile of trash that was dumped behind someone’s home. Cruz Loaiza and Zaremba use an app called Dayton Delivers to request public works come and remove it.

A little while later, they stop at a dollar store to buy candy, just in case they run into some neighborhood kids they’ve been dealing with.

Cruz Loaiza saID the children’s caregiver called the police because the children “were being disrespectful.”

“They wanted us to scare them,” she said, “but we don’t scare children. We have conversations with them. Well, come to find out, the kids recently changed placements. Their mom isn’t in the picture. There’s a lot of stuff going on. So, of course, they were going to have behavioral challenges.”

These are all calls the police would have had to respond to, and Major Christopher Malson of the Dayton Police Department says officers aren’t as well equipped to handle some of them.

“We just don't have the time to spend 45 minutes or an hour to get down to the deep, root cause of the problem,” he said. “Mediation response has the training, skill, and time to do that.”

And Malson said Dayton’s program is groundbreaking.

“This is the first one in the nation of mediation responders going out by themselves and taking a bunch of police calls away from us, which we truly appreciate.”

The mediators are a diverse bunch, too. Raven Cruz Loaiza said she intentionally recruited at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the MRUs are mostly people of color.

So far, public response has been positive, though Cruz Loiaza and Zaremba say they do have one issue when they respond.

Some people struggle with the name “Mediation Response Unit”

“Sometimes they’re like, ‘Meditation Response Unit?’ or ‘Medication Response Unit?’ We had somebody say, ‘I don't want any medication!,’” Cruz Loiaza said.

Zaremba said, “We’re ‘The Maroon People’ or ‘The White Car’ or ‘The Black Car.’ They say, ‘Send those people. They listen to us.’”

MRUs are just one of over 100 police reform suggestions that came from Dayton residents through the city’s Police Reform Working Groups.

Those ideas range from increasing mental health services and police training to changing use of force policies and using body cams. Major Malson said the department is working on implementing more of those ideas.

The MRU program had a budget of about a million dollars last year, with most of the funding coming from the city, but both the mediators and the police are quick to note that MRUs are less expensive to operate than having additional police units.