Hello, this is Ed Holpfer with the Vistelar Group.
In July 2009, a Cambridge, Mass. Police Sargent responded to a call about a possible break-in taking place. When he got to the house where this break in was reported to be in progress, Sargent James Crowley soon encountered and arrested the homeowner, vaunted Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The review that followed this unfortunate interaction between police and the professor highlighted some valuable lessons that everyone can use to de-escalate conflict and guard against the kind of communications breakdown that both parties involved called regrettable. The key to the whole incident becoming a problem was a breakdown of communication right from the initial contact the two men had.
From Sargent Crowley’s perspective, he was responding to a potentially dangerous situation and his training dictated that his top priority is to safely stabilize the scene. Meanwhile, Professor Gates was wondering why the police were at his door and demanded answers, going so far as to step out of his house to follow the Sargent as he was leaving. What neither person did was try to explain their viewpoint to the other person.
In the aftermath of the incident, Sargent Crowley admitted that he could have done a better job in explaining his reasoning for the encounter. This would have gone a long way to de-escalating the situation. Professor Gates said he shouldn’t have followed the officer.
If one or both men had been able to express their concerns to the other, the incident might have been managed quickly and without trouble. Instead, while Sargent Crowley was trying to focus on his safety, Professor Gates wanted to ensure his rights were not being impeded by challenging the legitimacy of the contact.
On this the review board wrote, “A key element of police legitimacy is whether the police provide what researchers call ‘procedural justice.’ This term encompasses not just whether a person believes that a law is fair and that police enforce it evenhandedly, but also whether the police officer treats a person with dignity and respect.“
After the interviews were completed and the review board discussed the matter, they came out with a list of recommendations to ensure that a situation like this would never happen again. Among them were that both police and the public should work to de-escalate conflict when interacting with each other. To achieve this, the Cambridge Police department now trains officers in interpersonal communication skills to de-escalate a situation after their safety has been ensured and to calm citizens who are upset or otherwise unstable.
The take away from this is that whether we are speaking with friends, family, co-workers, members of the public or police, miscommunications or a lack of any understanding by one or more parties can result in unnecessary conflict. No one is exempt from situations like this which is why everyone should have at least a basic understanding of how to de-escalate conflict and ensure that we treat everyone we meet with dignity and respect.
Ed Holpfer, Vistelar Group