Keep in mind the brittleness of some residents’ trust in their local leaders in the midst of volatile conflict and follow approaches likely to develop or enhance that trust.

In order to de-escalate a community conflict, it is important that people feel that they can trust those in charge – that their leaders are honest and open and that they understand and care about all segments within their community. The incident that sparks unrest may be one that undermines that public trust, at least for a part of the community.

Public officials’ early actions and statements following such an incident may also build or diminish trust. For example, if the problem is characterized in terms of “us versus them,” some portion of the community will doubt that public officials view it as their duty to serve them. In emotional conflicts, an official’s silence or lack of openness, a typical reaction in such situations, may weaken public trust. Treating something as “business as usual,” when a segment of residents are upset, may engender a lack of trust that officials care about those residents. Norton Bonaparte, City Manager, Sanford, Florida, underlines the importance of focusing public officials on this issue: “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”

Actions and decisions also affect trust. If a quick promise is made that the official has no ability to keep, it may cause people to doubt the honesty of their leaders. So, too, people may feel alienated from leadership when a leader announces a decision without explaining all of the viewpoints that were taken into consideration before making it.



  • Help your staff understand that some conflicts are precipitated or arise because of a lack of trust, and they must work to earn public trust in this context.
  • Develop an understanding of the needs and concerns of all of those involved and demonstrate that understanding. Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy, NAACP, put it this way: “If a government official came to the people and said, ‘Trust me,’ the first question they want to have answered is ‘Why?’ As we think about what we expect from those we empower in our government, there is an expectation that they know what our needs are. Government needs to demonstrate an understanding of what those needs are.”
  • Involve people from multiple disciplines and viewpoints in examining the economic, social, and political realities for each community within the community and be sure that those speaking for the community understand these realities.
  • Convey compassion for people expressing a sincere viewpoint, regardless of their stance or the issue at hand.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the heart of the problem, not just the most recent incident. Leaders can do this by defining the issues broadly enough so that all can embrace the definition. For more detail on doing this assessment, see another Divided Community document, Planning in Advance of Civil Unrest (2016), Step 2.
  • Determine whether those representing the government side are as diverse (taking into account the issues in conflict) as the community as a whole. If they are not, it may help to involve diverse individuals and demonstrably listen to them. “We can’t simply listen to the insiders, we need to hear from all the voices in the community,” said Carl Smallwood, immediate past president, National Association of Bar Presidents. “Community leaders must surround themselves with diverse partners in order to speak with authority.” Speaking to the law enforcement context, he added, “It’s hard to promote faith in the rule of law if there is a stark racial contrast between those charged with enforcing the law and the communities they serve.”
  • Explain clearly what has been decided and why, and convey those explanations so that they will reach all parts of the community, even if this is not typically done. “The community leaders need to show courage, integrity, and leadership. They need to make decisions that maybe everyone won’t agree with, but will understand why the decision was made and what went into making it,” said Richard Myers, Chief of Police, Newport News, Virginia; former Chief of Police, Sanford, Florida.
  • Determine whether and how public officials can respond to some issues early on. For example, Andrew Thomas suggested the following based on what occurred in Sanford, Florida: “Officials should go to the town-hall meetings and be prepared to listen. Determine if there are things that you can address that will establish good will and show that you care (find the ‘low hanging fruit’).”
  • Form a community-wide advisory council to provide advice and counsel in matters of policy, strategy, and tactics to the community leadership. An advisory council can provide valuable suggestions and feedback as the city develops its response strategy as well as become a conduit for disseminating a consistent message. Though it may help do to this immediately, the advisory council may also become the platform for addressing underlying issues in the future. Because of the strategic gains in forming this council with current considerations in mind, it may make sense not to charge an existing council, such as a mayor’s police advisory council, with these new tasks.
  • Show a sense of urgency regarding the concerns of all parts of the community. The public wants community officials to “show some urgency.” “When there is something ‘cooking,’ people don’t want their government moving at snail pace,” points out Richard Myers, Chief of Police, Newport News, Virginia; former Chief of Police, Sanford, Florida.
  • Be certain that all parts of the government “walk the walk.” Consider training code enforcers, law enforcement, courts clerks and others on issues of equity and sensitivity. Train those who will represent the local government at various gatherings. Two forms of training illustrate what may be helpful:

One trainer suggests the following: “Many intervenors will first demand compliance from the escalated person by telling them to be quiet or to ‘calm down’… As a way to unplug the power struggle, ask the person why they are upset or what they wish to achieve. Your question, together with a demonstration that you are listening, signals to the escalated person that you are interested in supporting them” (Services Alternatives Training Institute).

CRS conciliator Thomas Battles also suggests that training in conversations about race might be appropriate: “People are afraid to take on the issue of race and racial tension even though we know it exists. For city officials, it is key to deal with it from the outset and understand how to manage those conversations – an issue of preparing for these instances.”


In Sanford, Florida, police and community leaders met buses of those coming in for the rally and welcomed them, got elderly grandparents of the victim to the rally by providing a golf cart, opened city council meetings and added huge video screens outside for the overflow crowd, mixed with crowds at demonstrations, and advised local persons to yield the stage when outside groups tried to provoke a confrontation. – Andrew Thomas, Community Relations and Neighborhood Engagement Director, City of Sanford, Florida