I spent most of last night following the #ferguson hashtag on Twitter. For those who aren’t up to date on the story, I won’t rehash all of the details. You can catch up here. There’s a lot to be said – that will be said – about this situation. It’s complex, and I can’t address all of it right now.

But let’s talk about escalation and de-escalation for a minute.

And I saw a lot of people asking “Why? Why did it escalate so quickly?” and now “Why was last night so peaceful?” It’s a damned fine question, because the difference between last night and the nights before are striking. https://twitter.com/nickbilton/statuses/500066239528448001 For days, violence erupted as protesters were met by a wall of police officers in heavy riot gear blocking the streets. But on Thursday, the situation changed. A Missouri Highway Patrol Captain, Ron Johnson, was put in command of security for the protests. Capt Johnson – a Ferguson native – immediately promised that there would be no more tear gas. The riot gear disappeared. And then he joined the protesters and walked WITH them. https://twitter.com/JamilSmith/statuses/500052815835070466 He talked with them. He hugged them. He earned their trust. https://twitter.com/WesleyLowery/statuses/500052904326094849 The protests last night were peaceful. Capt. Johnson’s actions de-escalated the immediate crisis almost immediately. The solution was simple, because he recognized they were fighting the wrong problem.

This didn’t get worse because they couldn’t see the solution.

It got worse because they couldn’t see the problem. 

For days, the police chief, Tom Jackson, had been assuring news crews that he’d spoken with community leaders who said they’d do everything they could to keep things peaceful.  “We want them to air their grievances peacefully and express their frustration,”  Chief Jackson said repeatedly. “But we can’t have another night like last night.” In his mind it seems, the problem was that the crowd could become violent – and the police needed to be prepared to respond to violence.  Whatever his reasons, he misunderstood the real crisis – so his response caused a secondary crisis. But Capt. Johnson saw the real problem, and articulated it with a simple statement: “When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that’s a problem,” he said. ‘We’ve got to solve that.” In a single breath, Capt Johnson convinced the public that he not only understood the problem, but he understood it from their perspective. Even if Chief Jackson understood that people were scared and hurting, his statements and actions did not convince the public that he did. The people weren’t just “frustrated” or “airing grievances. They were – and are – scared and hurting. They feel threatened by a police force they don’t trust. They are terrified because an armed officer has shot their unarmed neighbor -and because they live in constant fear that it will happen to their loved ones.  Seeing a wall of heavily armed officers facing unarmed civilians just validated their fears – and magnified them.  The police were armed so heavily that my husband, an Army National Guard veteran who spent a year in northern Afghanistan and is trained for domestic riot response, did a double take when he saw the pictures. “They’re wearing the kind of gear you wear when you’re walking into full military combat,” he said. “We didn’t even wear most of that in Afghanistan. It doesn’t make sense.”   I’m only sharing this to illustrate that if a trained soldier was that shocked by the police response, you can imagine how scared the average civilian might be. And when fear is on the table, the immediate crisis can’t de-escalate until someone addressed that fear and distrust directly – and makes earning back trust the priority. For any organization in crisis – from the local sheriff to a government agency – the first priority has to be earning the public’s trust.  You can not do that if you don’t both understand the problem and convince the public that you understand the problem from their perspective. Unfortunately, this morning’s announcement by Chief Jackson was not well handled. The backlash should not be a shock: you can not win trust while also appearing defensive or withholding. That’s why in every crisis, you must ask yourself first

“Whose trust has been broken?”

and then

“Is my response going to re-build trust or keep breaking it?”