6 questions to ask when you hire a police chief

Story highlights

  • Cedric L. Alexander: Cities can find change leaders for chief by asking right questions
  • It is important that law enforcement leaders avoid rigidity and embrace agility, he says

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 president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)It has happened again. Two lives taken. Families devastated. Communities outraged. Two officers who probably wish they had been anywhere but where they were.

This is not the time or place to pass judgment on the killings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. Judgment will come -- in time. But, for the present, we confront appearances, what our eyes and ears tell us. It's what public relations people call "optics." Every city, every incident is different, truly. But the optics never seem to change. Police officers interact with a black male, who ends up shot to death.
Cedric L. Alexander
If it can be a tough time to be a black male in America, it is also a tough time to be a police officer. And a tough time to be a police chief. Too often these days, police-community relations are poisoned by implicit bias. In too many American communities, police look at certain categories of individuals -- citizens they are sworn to serve and protect -- as threats rather than human beings. And in too many neighborhoods, residents see the police officer as a uniform, a badge, a gun and a danger, not as a man or woman who has boldly volunteered to be the guardian of their lives and property.
    Worst of all, nothing seems to be changing at a time when change is absolutely critical to the healing of police-community relations. We are, all of us -- regardless of race or profession or station in life -- victims of a vicious cycle. Officer-involved shootings breed distrust, distrust poisons police-community relations, toxic relations inject every interchange between officer and citizen with the potential for a lethal outcome, and every shooting confirms the distrust and spreads the poison.
    Breaking a vicious cycle requires change, and change needs a change leader. Traditionally, mayors, police boards and search committees have not searched for change leaders to lead police departments. Police chiefs are all about law and order, after all, not change and transformation.
    Well, that was then, and this is now.
    Mayors, police boards and search committees need to put "change leader" at the top of their list of must-haves. And identifying change leaders is done by asking the right questions:

    Ask about bias

    There are mean and misguided people who should never be police officers, let alone police leaders. Ask the hard questions to identify those who have trouble dealing with diversity. But be aware that researchers in the emerging field of social neuroscience have shown that some bias is hard-wired into every human brain. What sets effective police executives apart is awareness of their own biases and the ability to work around them.

    Ask about accountability

    I think about accountability in three dimensions:
    1. Everyone in a police department needs to be accountable for understanding the law and acting according to it. Chiefs, however, are also accountable for fostering a professional culture in which law and policy are executed faithfully and without exception.
    2. Anyone who leads a modern police force should be big on science and data to measure results of policies and procedures. Objective metrics go a long way toward reinforcing accountability.
    3. Accountability requires everyone from chief to line officer to build trust and legitimacy with the public in everything they do.

    Ask about procedural justice

    Not only do we need to exercise our authority by the book while making a measurable positive impact on "crime and disorder," but we need to act with procedural justice -- fairness in everything we do to resolve disputes. In the Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing (PDF), on which I serve, we wrote: "(P)eople are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do."

    Ask about working positively with police unions

    Unions provide important representation and professional protection for police officers. Unfortunately, a union's defense of officer members sometimes conflicts with police-community relations. Mayors and search committees need to ask anyone who wants to be a chief how he or she will enlist the unions as partners in building positive community relations.

    Ask about adaptability

    Today, every human endeavor takes place in an environment of change. Policing is no exception, and that means it is important that law enforcement leaders avoid rigidity and embrace agility. They need to be adaptable to the technologies that play an ever-increasing role in police work. Even more critically, they need to be adaptable to our intensely diverse society. Whatever a chief's gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race and national background, he or she must serve a richly varied population. This requires not only an absence of prejudice, but an abundant presence of understanding and empathy. A chief has to be an enthusiastic student of people. What drives such enthusiasm? Curiosity -- an indispensable trait at every level of police work.

    Ask about police reform

    Start by asking for a definition. As I see it, meaningful reform begins with a community orientation. I'm in favor of community policing, an approach that advocates strategies to support police-community partnerships and pragmatic problem-solving techniques. The object is to partner with the community to address conditions that exacerbate crime, social disorder and fear of crime.
    The beauty of community policing is that it can begin with something as simple as a respectful few words between an officer and a resident on any street corner. Individual officers can work wonders to create positive relationships with the community. Ultimately, however, community policing has to involve the entire police force. Community policing is about individual relationships as well as relationships between police leaders and the leaders and influencers within the community, especially the leaders of churches, businesses, schools and professions.
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    The conundrum at the heart of 21st-century policing is that the most challenged communities present the most urgent demands for public safety, yet they tend to be the ones that most strongly resent the methods police employ to provide for public safety. Community policing can transform dysfunctional police-community relations. In nearly 40 years of police work, I've seen it work time after time.
    Do you want to know if the applicant for chief of police believes in community-oriented policing? Ask for success stories. The stories I want to hear are those that give me hope that we can meaningfully change the grim narrative surrounding too many officer-involved shootings. The change has to involve both police and community, but it needs to begin with the police -- and that change always begins at the top, with the right chief.