Representatives from six police departments across the country attended a law enforcement retreat on restorative justice in November 2016 near Harrisonburg, Virginia. The retreat was co-hosted by the Harrisonburg (Virginia) Police Department and the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice.
Agencies from California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Virginia were represented by executive leadership, who have led or continued to lead implementation of restorative justice practices in their respective jurisdictions.
Lieutenant Kurt Boshart, who founded and directed Harrisonburg Police Department’s restorative justice program, organized the event. Boshart has since retired from a 28-year career.
The goal of the retreat was to build networks, share resources and gain insights. Topics of discussion included personnel training, program sustainability, collaboration with faith-based and other community groups, funding, and use of restorative justice in crisis situations.
Participants agreed that utilizing restorative justice principles – being proactive, using good communication skills, building relationships and social capital by empowering and including community members –called for a holistic culture shift from “the top down and back up,” from new recruits to administration, said Chief Joe Garza, Reedley (Calif.) Police Department. At the same time, they agreed that many police departments, and individual officers, are already doing this kind of outreach, though perhaps under a different name.
What would be optimal, however, is systemic buy-in and a nationwide professional commitment to this different kind of accountability, they said.
“One model does not fit each and every community,” said Bedford (Mass.) Chief Robert Bongiorno, who partners with 14 other police departments through the non-profit Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ). [Jennifer Larson Sawin MA ’04, former executive director of C4RJ, is still involved with the organization as an advisor. She attended the retreat as well.]
The traditional penal system causes irreparable harm to communities, participants said, while restorative justice processes, if done correctly, reduce the frequency and severity of future offences by keeping the offender in the community (in employment, in school and with family) and involving stakeholders in repairing the damages.
The process is sometimes called “restorative justice diversion,” because the pre-charge referral and subsequent voluntary participation agreement from the offender shifts the case out of the traditional legal system. Youth and adults complete an accountability process that is “much tougher than going to prison,” Bongiorno says.
Several retreat participants reported being initially distrustful of this process, only to share transformative experiences when observing the benefits.
“Six years ago, I would have said everyone in this room is crazy, but now I say, ‘Why didn’t we figure this out 25 years ago?’” said Garza. He was accompanied by Officer Marc Ediger and former police officer John Swenning, now a restorative justice facilitator with West Coast Mennonite Central Committee. The three men collaborate as part of an initiative called the Reedley Peace Building Initiative.
“We don’t become police officers so that we can incarcerate people,” said Vanessa Westley, a 25-year veteran of the Chicago Police Force.
Participants planned to work towards formalizing their association, actively promoting their successful restorative justice programs, and networking more broadly among colleagues to share resources and encourage implementation of new programs.