The Community Relations Service was born out of one of the most contentious periods in American history — the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Justice Department peacemaking office established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act has provided communities dealing with racial or other tensions with professional mediators and other confidential services to help resolve conflict.
President Trump's 2019 budget proposal would effectively eliminate the CRS, transferring the office's responsibilities to the Civil Rights Division, which handles crimes. The proposed budget would cut the office's $15.4 million in funding and the 54 positions that are currently authorized.
This move would essentially gut a key agency that helps broker compromise in these hyperpartisan times, says Grande Lum, the former director of the CRS. He tells Here & Now's Robin Young he is concerned that moving the agency closer to prosecutors will deter people from requesting help for fear of a lawsuit.
"What's important is that for parties to be willing to come to the table, they need to be comfortable that whatever is said is held confidential, and that they are not at any potential danger of being prosecuted here," says Lum, who is now director of the Divided Community Project at Ohio State University. "So moving it, the function, to the Civil Rights Division would effectively end its function."
In its more than 50-year history, the CRS has helped protect the First Amendment and keep people safe during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, eased tensions during desegregation in Boston, and aided in resolving the Native American standoff at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973.
Justice Department official Lee Loftus told reporters in February the CRS is a "small entity in Justice today."
"We are very aware that there are some potential issues if you combine them, because there needs to be some segregation between CRS and its responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act and the functions that [the Civil Rights Division] may have in its regular investigative and prosecution responsibilities," Loftus said.
The CRS has long faced backlash from those on the right. The Heritage Foundation has described the agency as "highly politicized" and said it has "actually escalated local tensions in such places as Ferguson, Missouri, and Florida following the arrest of George Zimmerman."
But those who have sought the CRS's help tell a different story. After the killing of Travyon Martin in 2012, Mayor Jeff Triplett invited CRS mediators to Sanford, Fla., to hold meetings between local officials and the thousands of protesters who descended on the city.
"I'd hate to say that we couldn't have done it without [CRS], but I'd much rather learn from someone else's experience rather than my own misfortune," he said.
Triplett told MSNBC in 2013 that the city was overwhelmed by the massive influx of protesters, and the CRS helped local officials properly prepare for demonstrations during the weeks-long trial that followed.
"There were dozens of protests, but there was not a single arrest, not a single glass bottle thrown," Lum says. "We were able to have ... free speech, and we were able to maintain public safety."
In a time of deep political divisions, the changes being proposed could slash the prospect of healing communities and reaching compromise, Lum says.
Part of the problem is that political identities are growing more and more personal. The Pew Research Center measured a growing disdain for the opposing party from 1994 to 2014 with 43 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats viewing the opposite party very unfavorably.
After the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, an independent review concluded the Charlottesville Police Department should have responded to community criticism before the demonstration took place. In the aftermath of that attack, Charlottesville officials did request help from the CRS in recovery efforts.
"Community engagement is paramount for proactive, effective policing," the report noted. "CPD must commit on an ongoing basis to being a citizen-centric partner in promoting community well-being rather than a reactive, independent force."
Lum acknowledges the difficulty of engaging critics when they are radical groups like neo-Nazis or gun rights enthusiasts, but he says conflict resolution techniques employed by CRS can help "tell the third story."
"It's the ability to focus first on what matters — 'OK, I wanna hear your story, I have my story," Lum says. "But what's a story that we can both agree to?' In gun control, we wanna prevent tragedies. That's the third story."