Editor’s Note: Cedric L. Alexander is a former deputy mayor of Rochester, New York, and past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “In Defense of Public Service: How 22 Million Government Workers Will Save Our Republic” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
On Saturday, October 12, shortly after two in the morning, an alert neighbor in Fort Worth, Texas, did the right thing, the kind of thing that in general makes neighborhoods safer. Seeing that a nearby door was open at this odd hour, he called a non-emergency police number for a “safety check.” He later told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he was concerned because he knew that his neighbor, Atatiana Jefferson, was home alone with her nephew. What happened after that was something horrifying, a killing that has left communities across the country feeling less safe.
The police rolled up at about 2:25. One minute and 17 seconds of body cam footage show an officer approaching the Jefferson house. He peers through the closed screen door. As the neighbor said, the solid door is wide open behind it. Seeing a lit room, he does not enter but walks around the house, pauses at a window, and shines a flashlight into a dark room.
“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” he screams, without identifying himself as the police.
Within two seconds, even as he repeats the words show me, he shoots through the window.
It was literally a shot in the dark. But it found Atatiana Koquice Jefferson, and it killed her in her bedroom, where she was playing a video game with her nephew, 8 years old.
The phrase “senseless tragedy” certainly applies but is, of course, pathetically inadequate. It can’t describe how a well-meaning call for service, for a police “safety” or “welfare” check, ended in the violent death of an aunt who stayed up late at night to play with her nephew. It is even more inadequate to describe a police killing of yet one more person of color, guilty of nothing more than being at home, a killing that took place just eleven days after Dallas officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder for having fatally shot Botham Jean in his apartment, which she somehow mistook for hers. Fort Worth officials said Monday that the officer in the shooting has resigned and may face charges.
It is too late to help Botham Jean or Atatiana Jefferson. Nothing we can do will unkill them. But I fear that it is also rapidly becoming too late to help law enforcement agencies across this country begin to recover the legitimacy they have lost after so many seemingly impulsive or even reflexive police shootings of black people.
Every police executive and every police officer knows, or should know, that while the law gives them their official authority, it is the public who gives them their legitimacy, which is their more immediate authority—their street authority. Legitimacy is granted when people are confident that the police are competent, just, reasonable, fair and courageous. Most of all, people want to be safe in their homes. When people feel they can count on the police to enhance their safety at home, they grant them legitimacy. When the police themselves threaten their safety, they withdraw that legitimacy.
It’s time for this to stop.
The hope for putting a stop to these shots in the dark is contained in the answers to three questions law enforcement leaders must ask:
1. Who are we hiring?
Are we looking hard enough at our recruits? Are we testing them adequately to determine their emotional maturity and their mental health? Are we inquiring about their values? Are we confident that those we invite to take the oath of office can deliver on that oath?
2. How are we training our officers?
Are we training officers to help them develop the skills required to evaluate the high-stakes situations that every officer encounters? Are we enabling officers to understand and manage the implicit biases we all have? Tactical training in shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Are we also providing the social and ethical education officers need? Are we enlightening them to respect the diversity of our communities? And are we refreshing and updating all of this training frequently, rigorously, and in good faith? Is the education we give our officers given with the serious and sincere passion of life-and-death urgency?
3. Who is supervising them?
Have those who supervise and lead our officers earned their legitimacy? Do they believe in the values of service and the absolute authority of the constitution? Or do they lead and supervise with mixed messages, winks and nods that inculcate and reinforce an attitude of us versus them?
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The public that law enforcement serves knows the answers to these questions. After 40 years in law enforcement, it pains me that I now feel compelled to ask: Do today’s law enforcement leaders know the answers? Without them, we cannot begin to stop these “senseless tragedies.” Without the answers, we cannot begin to restore the legitimacy of law enforcement in our neighborhoods and our nation.