Why legitimacy is what Donald Trump needs most

Story highlights

  • Cedric L. Alexander: President Trump will not have automatic legitimacy now that he has taken oath of office
  • Like our law enforcement, our new President will have to show himself as President of all the people all the time, he writes

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 in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Donald John Trump is now the 45th president of the United States. Each inauguration, including Friday's, has been legal and fully in accordance with the United States Constitution. Yet much that the new president has said and proposes to do now that he has become the President is causing many people, most notably Congressman John Lewis earlier this month, to question the legitimacy of his presidency even before he takes the oath.

Cedric L. Alexander
For those of us in law enforcement, the word "legitimacy" has a very precise and consequential meaning. For us, it does not describe the authority we acquire by law, after we have sworn our oath. For us, legitimacy is something that comes after the swearing-in. It is something we acquire only after we are on the streets. It is an honor we earn from the people we serve.
Let me say that, as a former deputy sheriff and a current police executive, I feel the pain -- or what certainly should be the pain -- of our new president whose legitimacy has been challenged. For both police officers and presidents, legal authority is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Both jobs also require the people to vote their legitimacy. No law governs this. In the case of the president, legitimacy is not the result of an election held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Instead, it comes from the genuinely popular election that is held every single day after the inauguration. Day by day, the people decide whether or not to vote their leader legitimate. Every day, the President, like the police officer, must earn legitimacy by all he says and does.
    As legitimacy is not conferred by law upon the taking of an oath, so you don't have to break the law to lose your legitimacy. It is the people who confer legitimacy upon us. They do so only if we demonstrate fairness and complete transparency in the way we treat the members of the community and help to resolve their disputes. A patrol officer can operate "strictly by the book" and still be denied legitimacy if he or she fails to treat people with respect, is not open and upfront about what he or she does, makes arrests just because the law says an officer can, or shows no empathy because empathy is required by no law.
    At the core of legitimacy is procedural justice. Now, nothing is more destructive to procedural justice than bias. Bias is a common, maybe universal human trait. Most police jurisdictions recognize this and therefore take steps to train their officers to recognize and overcome their biases. They do this not just because the 14th Amendment guarantees the right to "equal protection of the laws," but because only by acting without bias can a police agency earn legitimacy.
    I appreciated the way in which Donald Trump reached out to the people in December with what he has called his "thank you tour," but I worried that the tour itinerary gave the appearance of bias because it was confined to states and places that supported his election. More recently, I have had concerns about the intemperate disrespect he has shown to members of the press. As a law enforcement executive, I can tell you that I regard the press as an invaluable ally in creating trust with the public. They deserve respect. The same is true of the intelligence community (IC), the vital eyes and ears of the President and the entire executive branch, which includes our federal partners in law enforcement. To publicly denigrate the IC, as Mr. Trump has done, is to administer a senseless self-inflicted wound.
    As we in law enforcement swear oaths to serve and protect everyone in our community, so a president needs to show himself as president of all the people all the time. With some anxiety, therefore, I worry if the our new President intends to continue employing, after he assumes office, a private security force at certain public events. During the campaign, the mission of this security cadre was largely to suppress or eject hecklers, something the Secret Service, sworn to uphold the Constitution, including its First Amendment right to free speech, cannot and will not do. Paying an unsworn squad to suppress the free expression of dissent does not build legitimacy.
    I hope and I pray that our new President will lead in ways that earn him the legitimacy every president needs, regardless of the law, regardless of the result of an election. We all have a stake in the legitimacy of our president's authority. Our nation needs legitimate leaders. For me and for others in the law enforcement community, the need for legitimacy in the highest office is especially important. During his campaign, Donald Trump called himself the "law and order candidate." I applauded that because it put the 45th president in line with the very first. George Washington described himself as the nation's "Chief Magistrate," a steward of law and order. As the first president, Washington defined the job. As he saw it, the president's primary role was to execute and enforce the laws Congress enacted. President Trump has promised to do the same, and so I feel a brotherhood with our new Chief Magistrate. We both promise a commitment to law and order.
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    That is why I appeal to Donald Trump to open his presidency by reading the Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It was my honor in 2015 to have been appointed to that task force by Barack Obama, and I can assure the new "Chief Magistrate" that my fellow members and I put into the Final Report everything we have learned about the importance of legitimacy in policing. Each of us on that task force understood that, for most Americans most of the time, the police are the government. Whether saving a life, showing a citizen the way to the Post Office, peacefully resolving a dispute on the street, intervening in a dangerous domestic dispute, delivering a new baby, or explaining why a traffic ticket must be issued, the police officer both represents and embodies the power and authority of the government. It is their duty to act without bias and with respect and empathy, so that the power and authority of a government of law earns legitimacy.
    I can assure our new President that we of the law enforcement community will, by our actions, earn the legitimacy that will help him to govern. In turn, we ask him to govern in ways that will also earn legitimacy. As police officers and as Americans, we need this.