HEATED arguments can end in violence. Police often are called only after the worst is over. But new police training in mediation skills is helping disputants to settle their own differences before the point of crisis.To date, mediation has taken hold most strongly in the legal system, easing court caseloads. Many police view mediating disputes as a time-consuming process they cannot afford. But with the rapid spread of community policing - the return of officers to a neighborhood beat - police are becoming more receptive. The community policing focus on early identification of neighborhood problems is likely to lead to the mediation of more disputes at the budding rather than the blossom stage, says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation. "I think with community policing we're going to see a lot more mediation," agrees Dr. Maria Volpe, a sociologist with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and coordinator of its dispute-resolution program. An offer 18 months ago by the American Association of Retired People (AARP) to provide police with free mediation training by American Bar Association (ABA) experts has also generated new police interest. The AARP wants to help them understand and communicate better with an older population often stereotyped and intimidated by police, explains senior program specialist John Bordenet. Police have not responded overwhelmingly to the AARP offer, concedes Larry Ray, director of the ABA's Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution. Still, his team has helped train hundreds of police officers in mediation and improved communications techniques. Only about one-third of the officers "really buy into it," he says. The need, says Mr. Ray, former director of the mediation program at Ohio's Capital University Law School and a former prosecutor, is to help teach police when to respond to disputes with strict controls and when to use more subtle methods and how to distinguish between the kinds of people dealt with. "Treating all citizens as if they were tough people just doesn't work," he says. In the District of Columbia during a recent Gay Pride Day demonstration, for instance, Mr. Ray says police took a "rough and tumble approach" to clear the streets of thousands of "generally very law-abiding" citizens. Many officers, he says, still need to be convinced that communications skills can be as important as guns and nightsticks. "They need all these tools," says Mr. Ray. Regarding the police complaint that mediation takes too much time, that sometimes police get called in on the same neighborhood situation 5, 6, or 7 times. "If you add all that up, then police do have time to talk," he says. Part of the problem is a mistaken view of what mediation really is, experts say. Many assume that the third party's job is to impose a solution rather than help both sides reach their own. "What's new is the notion that the third parties are now going to turn the problem back on the disputants," says Dr. Volpe. She says it is a concept the public as well as the police need to be educated about. "By the time disputing parties call the police, they usually want the police to do something," she says. "A lot of what police officers traditionally do amounts to mediation - we're just looking at sharpening some skills and maybe using a little different strategy," says Don Story, chief of police in Matteson, Ill., where about half the police department took the specialized training a few months ago. Sgt. Steve Rutzebeck, commander of the crime-prevention unit for the Maryland State Police, says his state has taken advantage of two AARP mediation-training programs within the last year. The potential for reducing the police workload is strong, he says. "It's one of those programs where you have to invest a little at the beginning to get a whole lot later on." m not sure we're going to get mediation society-wide," says Dr. Volpe, pointing to a wide variety of mediation programs in schools, on college campuses, and in businesses, "but we're seeing a kind of piecemeal permeation of the process in different sectors. People will find out about it."