Cedric Alexander: Three days in July demonstrate how serious the problem is
Police and communities must cooperate; the alternative is to live in a state of fear, 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.
July 5, 6, 7 – these three days in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas send a powerful message about what needs to change in America. The stakes are profound and go way beyond the political debate over Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.
In Louisiana, it was two officers responding to a call from a homeless man reporting an armed man selling CDs outside of a Triple S Food Mart convenience store. The officers arrived, Tasered their subject and tackled him. He struggled – resisted, fought back.
“He’s got a gun! Gun!” one of the officers shouted. More yelling. Then four to six gunshots – all from an officer’s service weapon, fired at a range of about 3 feet. According to the Triple S clerk, the officers did find a gun – in Alton Sterling’s pocket – after he lay dead.
In Minnesota, it was an officer making what the media calls a “routine traffic stop,” using a phrase you’ll never hear from the police themselves, who know that thinking any traffic stop is “routine” can get a cop killed.
In the car, pulled over for a broken taillight, was driver Philando Castile, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter. As Reynolds told it, Castile informed the officer that he was licensed to carry a concealed weapon and that he had one in the car.
“The officer said, ‘Don’t move,’” Reynolds told reporters. “As he was putting his hands back up, the officer shot him in the arm four or five times.”
A red stain rapidly spread across his shirt from his blasted arm and side. Philando Castile slumped over, moaned quietly and slipped into unconsciousness.
“I told him not to reach for it!” the officer yelled at Reynolds, his weapon still trained on Castile. “I told him to get his head up!”
“He had,” Reynolds responded with surreal calm. “You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license. Oh my God, please don’t tell me he’s dead.”
He was not dead – at least not for another 20 minutes. Philando Divall Castile, 32, died at 9:37 p.m. in the ER of the Hennepin County Medical Center.
The shooting of Alton Sterling the day before was documented by several bystanders with smartphones, by the convenience store security camera and by officers’ body cams. Not unusual coverage these days.
Jeronimo Yanez, the St. Anthony, Minnesota, officer who shot Philando Castile, was not equipped with a body cam, so the shooting was not recorded. But its immediate aftermath was – not just recorded, but streamed, live, on Diamond Reynolds’ Facebook page.
Whether we want it to or not, today’s digital technology often brings us together only to tear us apart – from the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles on March 3, 1991, to the shootings of Sterling and Castile, in Baton Rouge and in Falcon Heights. These videos and all too many between them show black men killed by police officers, some white, a few not, but all wearing blue.
More videos came July 7 in Dallas, during a protest by Black Lives Matter – one of several protests across the country since July 5. This time, the videos showed police officers as victims. The shooter was a black man, a veteran of the Army Reserve who had served a tour in Afghanistan. He used a semiautomatic rifle and a handgun with a high-capacity magazine to shoot 15 persons, 13 officers – five killed, eight wounded – and two civilians, both of whom survived.
The motive of the shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, was reported as rage over the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and rage over white people, generally. Johnson’s Facebook page revealed “likes” for Black Lives Matter protests. A friend reported that Johnson had “anger management issues” and watched the Rodney King video over and over.
But we will never know Johnson’s motive – not for sure. All that we can know for certain is that Johnson was a terrorist. I say this because he used the weapons and tactics of terrorism. In addition to that rifle and handgun, he stockpiled other firearms as well as chemicals, piping and electronics to make explosive devices. He also trained at a private “tactical combat” school.
Unlike most of the other acts of terrorism that have made headlines in the United States since September 11, 2001 – the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, the suicide attack on a Chattanooga military recruiting office in 2015, the San Bernardino shootings later that year, and the Orlando mass killing of 49 (with the wounding of 53 more) on June 12, 2016 – Dallas was not about al Qaeda or ISIS or religious extremism. Nevertheless, like the others, it was the bloody work of someone radically alienated from his community, neighbors, and nation.
In that alienation, Micah Johnson was far from alone. Not without reason, many African-Americans, mostly young men, fear and distrust the police, especially white officers. And many officers, regardless of race, fear and distrust young black men.
Proper police training is intended to enable officers to overcome fears, assumptions and biases. Good training should prevent an officer from mistaking compliance for an act of aggression. Effective training helps officers to deescalate potentially explosive situations rather than detonate them. The right training promotes community policing, in which officers engage with the community as guardians, not as invading warriors.
If we are to move beyond July 5, 6 and 7, police departments all over the United States, including my own in DeKalb County, Georgia, need to look at themselves, their recruiting standards and their training regimes. We police leaders need to look at ourselves as well, ensuring that our leadership fosters organizations of professional guardians, not wary warrior bands on a hair trigger.
If we are to move on, our neighborhoods – whatever race, ethnicity, or national origin may predominate in them – must likewise become guardians, cooperative with the police, whose sworn mission is to serve and protect them. They must comply with the law and the authority that guarantee their rights, including the right to peaceful protest.
It is to repeat, endlessly, July 5, 6, and 7. In other words, the alternative is a permanent state of terror, whether inspired by murderously intolerant outsiders – ISIS, al-Qaeda, or by whatever other name – or perpetrated in the name of some other movement, cause, or perceived personal offense. It is an unlivable alternative, and so the police and the community must know they have enemies – but that their enemy is not each other.
To move beyond July 5, 6 and 7, we need to look back to July 4 and the birth of the nation we share, dedicated to liberty, justice and the welfare of us all.