Youngstown mediators say listening, not answering, is key to their work in preventing violence

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Guy Burney and Malik Mostella

Guy Burney (left) and Malik Mostella

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Malik Mostella doesn’t want to hear the voices anymore.

The 21-year veteran of the city police department is no stranger to pain and grief. He has worked a north side beat on midnight turn for most of his career, sandwiched between a stint on the department’s Street Crimes Unit.

There’s been too many shootings. Too many dead people. Too many grieving mothers and friends.

So when Mostella, the department’s new Community Liaison who is also a negotiator with the Mahoning Valley Crisis Response Team, is called upon to mediate a dispute in the city that could lead to gunfire, he said he is guided by the principle that he never wants to hear those voices at crime scenes again.

“The goal is to keep them alive,” Mostella said recently in his office in the old municipal court facility in City Hall. “I’ve got too many mom’s voices in my head saying their kid’s names.”

The 50-year-old Mostella is a native of the South Side who said he knew at the age of 4 he wanted to be either a police officer, lawyer or fireman. He said he decided on a career in law enforcement because he was upset at how he thought people were treated by police.

However, he said after he became a police officer, he became aware of why police have to do some of things they do.

He also said that being a native of the city, he felt a strong sense to be among its protectors.

“It’s our community. We should protect it,” Mostella said. “Somebody has to deal with people who are bullies.”

Mostella has recently teamed up with Guy Burney, the head of the city’s Community Initiative To Reduce Violence, to mediate disputes in the city. On one recent night, he and Burney spent several hours with a group of five people, working with them to ensure their dispute did not turn to gunfire, or worse, a trip to the coroner’s office.

Burney has a long record in mediation, working for several different government entities before working for the city. The south side native is a hard man to reach; he is always on the go and he is always in demand. For a recent interview, a reporter ran into him in front of City Hall and followed him up to his office on the sixth floor, where the planning and zoning office used to be, asking questions as they rode the elevator.

His phone is ringing constantly, he said; “all day and all night.”

Mostella has also coached football at several different high schools, including Mathews and Lowelville, and he is currently a track coach at Ursuline High School. You can often run into him wearing one of his “Stride Or Die” t-shirts when indoor track season begins through the outdoor season.

As one of several Star Wars aficionados on the department, his office is decorated with knick knacks from the Star Wars universe. The ring tone on his phone is the Imperial Death March, or the Darth Vader theme, from the movies. The ringtone for his former partner when he was on Street Crimes, Pat Mulligan, who now patrols a South Side beat, is the sound of Darth Vader’s breath mask. When the two were partners on Street Crimes, going across the city looking for wanted fugitives or guns or drugs, their car had a Darth Vader sticker on the shotgun mount.

While not saying what he discussed or who he discussed it with when he and Burney worked with the five people who were having issues, Mostella said as a mediator, especially with teens or young adults, the number one skill he needs is to be able to listen. By listening, he does not mean to take in what he is hearing so he can formulate a response, but to listen so that the person can get their viewpoint across.

“You have to be able to relate, then let them talk,” Mostella said. “As adults, we have to listen instead of telling.”

Burney agreed with Mostella that listening to allow someone to express their viewpoint instead of thinking of a way to answer back is one of the most important skills a moderator can have.

“Everybody has their different perspective as to what happened,” Burney said.

That does not mean excusing a bad act, Mostella said. He said when it is his turn to speak, he often warns of the consequences of violence which are several: jail, injuries, fear and death.

Young people also want proof, Mostella said. They are willing to listen to you, in return, to take in what you are saying, as long as you have a way to back up what you say.

“This generation, you have to show them proof,” Mostella said.

And what proof can he show them? He points to himself.

“I’m living proof that I came from the same place you come from.” Mostella said he tells them. “The street isn’t your only option.”

There is already a high demand for Mostella’s and Burney’s services this year. Last year in the city, 98 people were shot, including 27 of 28 homicide victims, an increase from 2019, when 58 people were shot and Youngstown recorded 20 homicides.

So far in 2021, Youngstown has seen 51 people shot, including all 13 homicide victims. At this time last year, Youngstown had seen 36 people shot, including 13 of 14 homicide victims.

Burney has offered to teach mediation tactics to members of a group of churches who are organizing prayer walks throughout the city in some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by gun violence, so that they can mediate disputes in their neighborhoods.

Mostella said he and Burney have been asked before to mediate disputes in the city’s schools. Often, Mostella said, they can initiate mediation just by scanning police reports and finding the same names popping up over and over.

Often, detectives will also refer people to them for mediation, Mostella said.

Burney said he sometimes knows of someone who is skirting the edge of trouble and needs help to stay straight, so he will try to help them with mediation. He said often, with younger people, he tries to get their families on board first. They become a powerful ally when he then begins to mediate with the actual people who are feuding.

“Family members are some of our most important pieces,” Burney said.

Burney said with the social distancing guidelines imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, it was hard to do in-person mediation, so a lot of mediation was done by phone.

Chief of Detectives Capt. Rod Foley said a lot of times, detectives run into people when investigating crimes who can use help in settling a dispute so they don’t wind up being questioned again for something far more serious.

He said a lot of times, those people won’t cooperate in investigations, but it is clear something is going on, so he will ask Mostella or Burney to get them talking among themselves.

Foley said he remembers when the municipal court had a dispute mediation program at one time several years ago but it had to be discontinued because of a lack of staffing. He said the program worked well.

Mostella also said there are plenty of ways during mediation that help can be offered. If someone needs food, that can be arranged. If someone needs a job, that can be arranged. Sometimes, Mostella said that kind of help can be enough to get someone to stop feuding.

When they first begin, Mostella said he is aware that often the people he is talking to do not trust him. But over time, through listening, he said they begin to trust him.

“In the beginning, they don’t believe you,” Mostella said. “The more you show them, the more they begin to believe. They start to trust. Then, after awhile, you find a balance. They call you. And it’s great when they want to do that.”

Burney said it is important to also practice what one might call good manners; don’t interrupt. Let someone finish talking before you proceed and make sure you maintain your neutrality.

“It’s all about the set up and the climate,” Burney said. “If it’s not respectful, it’ll never work.’

For younger people, some older people might think what they are feuding about is trite. But it is not to them, Mostella said. He said, for example, he thinks back to when he was in his teens or early 20s and the things that were important to him then.

And it is more important than ever now to reach those young people, Mostella said. He said far too many young people are falling victim to violence.

Already this year, a pair of juveniles were the victims of a shooting in February on the North Side.

In March, a 13-year-old girl on the South Side was wounded when several shots were fired into her home; and two 16-year-olds were arrested in that crime along with a 25-year-old woman.

In May, three juveniles were wounded on the south side over a dispute that police said started in school. One of the victims, a 17-year-old girl who was not even involved in the dispute, took a gunshot wound to the neck and is presently paralyzed. A 26-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman were arrested in that shooting.

Among this year’s homicide victims, three are 19 and one is 16. In the latter case, a 16-year-old is charged in Mahoning County Juvenile Court with involuntary manslaughter.

In two other homicides that were cleared this year, the suspects are 19 years old. For all of last year, three of the 27 homicide victims killed by gunfire were under 21.

Statistics also show that of over 60 people arrested in the city on gun charges this year, one in four of them, or about 25 percent, are under the age of 21.

Burney said he does not think too much about what someone is feuding about and whether or not it is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. He said once things begin to escalate to where people are willing to risk jail, bodily injury or death to get their point across, it is time for him to step in.

“If it reaches a point we have to moderate, the ‘why’ at that point is not a priority,” Burney said.

Burney also said it is important to remember that the goal of mediation is not to resolve the dispute but to stop the conflict. Sometimes, they can resolve a dispute. Other times, they can not, but they are still able to convince people that it is not worth harming someone else or going to jail.

“Resolution doesn’t mean we’re in agreement,” Burney said. “It means we agree to proceed in a different way.”

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