Cedric L. Alexander: Supporting police does not mean ignoring bad practices
An attack on an officer is an attack on you and your community, he says
Editor’s Note: Cedric L. Alexander is a CNN law enforcement analyst and director of public safety at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia. He is a former national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. The views expressed are his own.
On August 28, Harris County sheriff’s deputy Darren Goforth was assassinated – I can think of no other word for it – while pumping gas into his patrol car at a suburban Houston Chevron station.
On August 30, during a Black Lives Matter march to the gates of the Minnesota State Fair, marchers chanted, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.”
On August 31, GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz issued a statement asserting that “vilification of law enforcement … is coming from the top – all the way to the President of the United States and senior administration officials.”
A murder, a chant, a statement. Depending on their cultural background, politics, life experience and – quite probably – race, different people will draw different connections among these three things. In the end, however, only one connection really matters. None of them – not a savage killing, a cruelly clueless chant or an unsubstantiated accusation – contributes to building and bettering our American community.
The alleged killer of Deputy Goforth was found mentally incompetent in 2012 to stand trial over another charge. But make no mistake, attacks on police officers are still a direct attack on the community, our community, the community we all share and in which we all have a vital stake.
Police officers are sworn guardians of the community. That is their job, their profession and their commitment. If and when individual officers fail to act as guardians, we may need to help them, we may need to discipline them, we may need to separate them from the profession, and in rare cases we may even need to refer them to the legal system.
The community has a constitutional right to protest what it sees as police misconduct. Such protest can be positive, leading to productive and necessary change. Neither police agencies nor the communities they serve can tolerate misconduct.
But none of us can forget that the very existence of a police force is a declaration of the values of the community, and among the very highest of those values is a commitment to law. When the community has a grievance concerning a single officer or an entire department, it must be dealt with in a lawful manner that reflects and upholds the values of the community.
It should go without saying that there is no legal or moral justification for a police officer to willfully abuse anyone, just as there is no legal or moral justification for a deadly attack against a police officer.
But even more than the life of the officer is at stake in such situations. Even if you feel you have reason to resent the police – and there are some people in some communities that have such reason – understand that an attack on an officer is an attack on you and your community.
Believe it: the person who assaults a cop will not think twice before attacking anyone and everyone. Therefore, a community that tolerates, harbors, let alone praises those who assault the police invites its own destruction.
I am not suggesting that the police will stop protecting such a community. They will not stop. They will never stop trying. What I am saying is that when a community fails to support its guardians, it effectively declares its support for the criminals who mean to destroy that community. No neutral position is possible.
So we need to do the simple but harsh math: Either a community supports law or accepts lawlessness. To support law is to proclaim the value of the community. To accept lawlessness is to surrender to the destruction of the community.
Supporting the police does not mean ignoring, accepting, condoning, or defending bad police practices. On the contrary, supporting the police means working through government and the law to identify whatever is broken and to fix it. And the truth is that police and civilians are members of one community. Whatever their differences are as individuals, they share the community. They have a common stake in it.
All this means that those exercising their constitutional right of peaceful protest need to give serious thought to what they actually say in protest. If the unfairness, crudity, and cruelty of their words serves only to deepen and widen the gulf between community and police, they need to find other language, language that builds bridges rather than burns them.
As for public figures and politicians, whose moral responsibility is to shape laws and motivate actions that build a better and stronger American community, they need to ensure that their public speech educates and informs rather than merely inflames. “It is much easier to pull down a government,” John Adams wrote to fellow Massachusetts patriot James Warren, “than to build [one] up …”
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama appointed me to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. We issued our final report in May. We pulled no punches in identifying issues in policing that cry out for reform. But our objective was to “build up,” not just “pull down.” Working closely with both communities and police agencies, we made extensive recommendations for improving community-police collaboration.
Our democratic society invites and thrives on argument. Coming together as guardians of our communities – police and civilians alike – does not require us to end all of our disagreements. We make progress through respectful debate. But we must come together completely in our mutual embrace of community. And we must be seamlessly united in our agreement that lawlessness is not an option.