True de-escalation is a mindset before it's a tactic
Strategies to de-escalate the system to help things go right for people
"I missed my court date," said one Police Athletic League youth to another as Kansas City Kansas PAL Director Matt Tomasic walked by. Tomasic's "there has to be a better way" alarm started going off three sentences into the story. Cops with the best intentions, doing their job well, following all the policies and rules - but making things worse.
Making things worse
Matt was no stranger to working hard as a cop while inadvertently making things worse; in fact, he was an expert. For years, he worked harder than he ever had in his career to "serve and protect" the people on the historic Westside of Kansas City, Missouri, only to discover he was leaving the community in more danger and more filth.
One problematic location was a day laborer site that had existed for 60-odd years, where dozens of men would gather to wait for work. With no restrooms available, the men would urinate in the street. Some men would be assaulted and robbed when they were returned to the area after a day's work.
Matt tried to enforce a zero-tolerance policy, but jail space constraints meant the policy was ineffective. Under the mentorship of Lynda Callon, the Westside Community Action Network's (WCAN) Director, Matt found how he had unwittingly played a part in creating a "Shangri-la for criminals" by not embracing solutions that addressed the real problems at hand. WCAN's development and management of an immigrant day laborer center reduced crime by over 50% and measurably improved the quality of life in a way that enforcement alone could not achieve.
Eventually, Matt retired from the Kansas City Missouri Police Department and turned his attention to his hometown in Kansas City, Kansas. Familiar with the area, Matt knew there was not much for young people to do. Matt met with the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department (KCKPD) Chief around the idea of starting a Police Athletic League (PAL). A year and a half later, the KCKPAL became a reality, where Matt serves as the director.
Listen and learn
One of Matt's lessons learned from Lynda was to "listen and learn." Be curious; pay attention to what people say. Consider how police actions (intended for good) impact individuals and the larger community for better or worse (especially for worse).
Matt learned that while driver's education used to be offered at no charge to students in most public schools, schools have dropped these no-cost programs.
After speaking with many of the teenage members at the PAL and their parents, Matt discovered most teenagers drive their family vehicles to work, pick up siblings from school, and attend school themselves while their parents are working. And while these young people are of an age to obtain a driver's license, most do not have one.
Many of the parents of the PAL teens are unfamiliar with or intimidated by the licensing process. Often, parents cannot obtain licenses themselves because of their immigration statuses. Additionally, they have limited use of the English language and generally avoid the government. Nonetheless, parents drive without a license to provide for their families.
When language or immigration status is not a barrier, Matt found that many of the PAL youth come from single-parent households or have very young parents. The parents of this demographic group are very busy, often working nighttime hours, with too many pressing demands to prioritize getting their teen a license.
In many cases, the teens seem to lack the basic information about the process. Not only concerned that they would not be able to pass the written exam, but they also often (like their parents) are intimidated by the government. For these and many other reasons, young people end up driving without a license.
Here is where the police come in. Good cops, doing their job according to training and policy striving to protect and serve, come across these unlicensed drivers, issue tickets and tow the family car. If the teen fails to appear in court for the ticket, a warrant will be issued. The result is a high financial cost to the family and an unnecessary introduction to the criminal justice system for the teen.
Matt could understand how these outcomes can combine to foster deep-seated resentment toward the "system" in general and police specifically. Matt also knew that people working in the "system" did not intentionally try to "escalate" these families and this community to distrust the police or the system further. No one intended to make things worse for everybody, but they did precisely that - by simply doing what cops and the "system" have always done.
Did Matt shrug and say something like, "This is unfortunate, but it is not in my lane; not my problem"? No. Matt had acquired profound wisdom from Lynda Callon, which provided a way forward. Matt devised a way to "de-escalate" everyone's role in this mindless escalation.
The Arbinger "De-escalation Pyramid" captures Lynda's indomitable yet compassionate wisdom quite simply. Like most people, I need the de-escalation pyramid and its lessons in front of me as a constant guide. Lynda was one of those rare individuals who could see how the system and her actions (just doing my job, following the rules) can inadvertently make situations worse for people, "escalating" people to feel anger and resentment. Through the years, Matt had learned from Lynda, and he had also developed an intuitive sense to apply the principles of the de-escalation pyramid.
The de-escalation pyramid confirms what Matt learned from Lynda, the most effective way to exercise power and authority associated with law enforcement in a constitutional republic is by empowering others. Empower others to make meaningful contributions and help things go better for themselves, their family, and their community, fostering a feedback loop for wellbeing and harmony.
Matt set about building relationships and leveraging relationships to "Help things go right." As a result, after 60 hours of classroom and drivers training, PAL Officer Reyes became a Kansas-certified driving instructor. KCKPD donated a driver's training car with a passenger-side brake system. Now, the eight participants currently enrolled have received their learner's permit and are on their way to on-the-road driver's training at the PAL at no cost. During the training, officers also provide insight into what to expect if the police stop participants and the most effective response.
Matt would be happy to further explain the details of the program and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. However, the goal of this article is not to give agency leaders another program to consider implementing. Instead, the goal is to offer the de-escalation pyramid as a framework for ALL policy, strategy, operations and tactical considerations. Matt's story provides a stellar example of the mindless hypocrisy of allowing the system to escalate people then leaving the officers accountable to de-escalating the same people.
As a tribute to the enduring wisdom of Lynda Callon, the KCKPAL turned a perpetually escalating problem into a model of strategic and operational de-escalation.
With the challenges police departments face, they must learn to apply de-escalation principles to the policy and strategic operations of police work. Until then, the best de-escalation tactics conceivable will be working against the escalating policies and operations that have historically performed at the top of the pyramid. Departments will continue reacting to what has (and perpetually keeps) going wrong.
Thank you, Matt Tomasic, KCKPAL and posthumously, Lynda Callon, for a bright and shining example of de-escalating the system to help things go right for people!