Editor’s Note: Cedric L. Alexander served some four decades in law enforcement and other areas of public service leadership. A CNN and MSNBC contributor, he is the author of “In Defense of Public Service: How 22 Million Government Workers Will Save Our Republic.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
A bystander video recorded shortly before the fatal shooting of two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shows the accused shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse, with an assault-style rifle, milling among a group of other armed civilians claiming to be standing guard against people gathered to protest the police shooting, two days earlier, of Jacob S. Blake.
At 17, Rittenhouse was charged with violating Wisconsin law, which bars those under 18 from being armed with any deadly weapon. Police officers are seen on the video passing in an armored vehicle, offering Rittenhouse and the group of armed civilians bottles of water, and broadcasting over a loudspeaker “We appreciate you guys. We really do.
Without asking, they could not know that Rittenhouse was underage, but they certainly knew that he and the others were in violation of the curfew the officers were legally bound to enforce. But, having chosen to side with vigilantes, they gave out water bottles and encouraging words rather than an order to disperse under threat of arrest.
Rittenhouse, along with many militia members, profess a special fellowship for the police and we also know that some police reciprocate that sentiment. It’s true that police are facing especially tough challenges in a time of pandemic, street protests and a spike in gun violence in major cities.
But competent police leaders do not welcome any alliance with armed, unsworn, untrained vigilantes. In addition to the obvious immediate danger these people pose, they make the job of the police in the community exponentially more difficult. The “appreciation” for the Kenosha curfew breakers is evidence of the risks facing police when they give the appearance of being overtly involved in politics or a particular political viewpoint. They can’t afford any perception that they’re leaning toward vigilantes in the performance of their duties. Any association with them casts the police in a partisan light that sacrifices the trust of the community.
On that trust, the effectiveness of a police force depends. It can be equally dangerous for police to show any support to a particular party or politician when police are acting in a professional capacity.
No law in America requires you to disclose whom you voted for or intend to vote for. Like the right to vote itself, we take the secret ballot for granted. But the secrecy is, in fact, very valuable. It preempts social, local, employer, or peer pressure from swaying or intimidating voters. For police officers and many other public servants, the right not to disclose your electoral choice is, I believe, not just a right but an obligation.
At the very least, it is a best practice. During the four decades in which I was in law enforcement, I proudly referred to myself as a “law and order lawman,” but I never told anyone outside of family and a few friends what candidates I voted for. Nobody ordered me to keep my preferences secret. I just knew, in my gut, that keeping my politics to myself was the way to ensure that my actions as a police officer were not only apolitical but would be perceived as apolitical.
In every law enforcement position I have held, my oath was invariably to the Constitution, and I also swore to serve and protect the people of the community that hired me. My oath mentioned no sheriff, no chief, no mayor, no governor, no organization, no political party, and certainly no president of the United States.
Every sworn law enforcement in our nation takes essentially the same oath. On the street, a cop cannot afford to be a Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, or anything other than a member of the community who is pledged, trained, and qualified to serve and protect the public safety courageously and impartially within the law.
To perform their sworn mission, police officers are entrusted with very consequential legal authority, including the authority to use deadly force. But the power behind that authority comes not from any law but from the public. It is the members of the community who grant their officers the legitimacy to perform their mission. Without this grant of legitimacy, the police, for all their legal authority, are essentially powerless.
A congressional representative serves terms of two years, a senator six, a president four. Partisans all, they win or lose elections, they come, and they go. A police officer’s career has no fixed term, but that officer’s effectiveness in the community depends exclusively on the legitimacy the people grant him or her. Demonstrate partisan bias, and that legitimacy will dissolve – perhaps in an instant.
Ask a competent police officer “Which side are you on?” and the answer you will hear is not the Republican side or the Democratic side but your side. Of course, police have political opinions, and, these days, they are often strong opinions. But everyone in law enforcement, from leadership down to street level, needs to discipline themselves to act on those opinions only at the polls and off-duty.
Citizens ask if the police are capable of demonstrating such impartiality, especially when some police unions endorse a high-profile candidate, as the president of the City of New York Police Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, recently did in the case of Donald Trump.
My response to officers and their leadership is this: The people cannot read your mind or peer into your soul, but they can hear what you say and see – as well as feel – what you do. What is more, they share your words and your acts on social media.
Let these be just, measured, and resolutely apolitical. For the police must serve just one side, the American community – gloriously diverse as it is in race, religion, appearance, lifestyle, opinion, and political affiliation.