Policing in America: 3 questions candidates should be asked

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.

Story highlights

Cedric L. Alexander: We hear about angry electorate that feels neglected by government

Law enforcement represents the government for most of the public, he says

Alexander: Candidates should be asked about promoting better police-community relations

CNN  — 

There have been plenty of questions asked of the five remaining presidential contenders – on immigration, foreign policy and even what bathrooms people should be allowed to use. So why is it, as we get ready for another primary Tuesday, we haven’t found the time to ask them the three most important questions?

1. How will you support police officers as they face the most challenging law enforcement environment in our lifetime in terms of maintaining and building trusting relationships with the community?

2. What will you do to move forward with the police reforms recommended by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing?”

3. What is your plan for promoting life-saving, life-enhancing relations between the police and communities they serve?

Cedric L. Alexander

No questions are more important than these. I say so not because I happen to lead a police department in metro Atlanta, but because I know that, for many Americans, the police are the government. That’s right – not the president, not the Congress, not the Supreme Court, but the individual police officer. Remember, facing a threat to life, the officer is the government’s first responder.

By his or her courageous presence and actions, that officer is at that time and place the only projection of the government’s power. To a motorist stranded on the roadside, the deputy – not the Department of Transportation – is the source of immediate aid. To the homeless, disoriented man shivering in a forlorn alleyway, the police officer, not the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of Housing and Urban Development, brings immediate life-saving attention and empathetic understanding.

Our Constitution charges the government with providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare. But it is our first responders who execute this charge. Every day, day and night, they are the government.

How is the president connected to the cop in his patrol car?

For the answer, go to the second inaugural address George Washington delivered in 1793. In it, he called himself the nation’s “chief magistrate,” a label picked up by Presidents John Adams, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson. They understood that Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution required them to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” They understood that the president is not only commander in chief of the nation’s military but also chief magistrate in the execution of the nation’s laws.

The United States has no true national police force. Good thing, too. The police should be of the local community and answerable to it. Nevertheless, the commander in chief (and chief magistrate) needs to care deeply about the thousands of men and women who actually provide for the common defense and who promote the general welfare, one neighborhood at a time, one person at a time, throughout America.

Sir Robert Peel created in London the world’s first “modern” urban police force. That was in 1829, in an empire governed by a queen. But he defined the police in so radically democratic a way that it remains startling nearly 200 years later: “The police are the public and … the public are the police.” He called them “members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties … incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

We elect our government from among ourselves. Ours is a government of, by and for the people. But for a growing number of Americans, it hardly feels that way. This campaign season we have heard about an angry electorate that feels neglected by the government. And, too often, the people are neglected. The other evening, “60 Minutes” reported on how members of Congress routinely devote 30 hours a week to raising funds for their re-elections instead of doing the people’s work for which they were “hired.”

We call the members of Congress “representatives,” but the truth is that the police, not the officials we elect, most immediately represent us to our government and our government to us. The first responders are the first providers of the law, order, security and justice the government promises us. Therefore, “the interests of community welfare and existence” depend on a positive, trusting, mutually beneficial relationship between police and the public. Today, police are the first to respond to complex, delicate, sometimes dangerous situations involving immigration, global terrorism, the welfare and actions of the mentally disturbed, and the triumphs and tragedies of diversity.

On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, igniting both civil unrest and a national debate on police and community. The debate was bitter, but there was agreement on one thing: All too often, police-community relations are toxic.

In the wake of Ferguson, the President created the Task Force on 21st-Century Policing, and its co-chair, Charles H. Ramsey, then-Philadelphia police commissioner, asked me to serve on it.

In its report, issued in May 2015, the task force proposed six “pillars” on which to raise a new community-police relationship: trust and legitimacy, transparent policy and oversight, savvy use of technology and social media, community policing methods, improvements in officer training, and programs to support officer safety and wellness.

The report was the product of listening to leaders in law enforcement, our communities and our academic and social institutions. I know that police leaders and community leaders read our work. They’ve talked to me about it. But I have no idea if any of the presidential candidates have read it. Certainly, I’ve heard no one in the media ask them about it.

They really should.

So I call on my friends in the media and everyone who votes this November: Ask the candidates to tell you – to tell us all – how they plan to support first responders in a job that is more challenging than ever. How will they help them to become more effective guardians of their communities? How will they enable police officers to work with their communities to repair, rebuild and renew the bonds between the people and their government?

In a time when no American neighborhood is insulated from a world in which bloody terror is for some the weapon of choice, these questions are much more than campaign issues. They are the urgent imperatives of our national welfare and existence in the 21st century.

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