A View in Blue: Perspectives from Law Enforcement

By Cedric L. Alexander

We live in a complex world. With all due respect, the only folks who know this better than lawyers are police officers. From time to time, both lawyers and law enforcement need to rise up from the weeds to get clarity—simple, broad, and basic. Attorney or cop, our profession is the law.

Have I somehow left out human being? Lawyers, after all, work for their clients. The police serve and protect the people.

I’ve not forgotten. We do our jobs in a nation founded on what John Adams called “a government of laws, and not of men.” A lawyer, Adams risked his livelihood in 1770 when he defended the Redcoats who killed five and injured six in the Boston Massacre. The outraged people of Boston wanted them hanged. But Adams knew the right to a fair trial was the soldiers’ human right. He did not believe this. He knew this, because the law told him so. He acted as a lawyer in a government of laws, and not of people. He used those laws to defend the human rights of his clients.

Amid the very human complexity of our nation’s streets, some police officers fail to put our most basic law—the Constitution—above the perceptions and emotions of the moment. We’ve all seen the smartphone videos. But in nearly 40 years in law enforcement, I have never personally met a police leader who believes such failures are acceptable or excusable. We are sworn to enforce the law, and since United States law flows from the Constitution, enforcing the law means upholding human rights.

This is the foundation of modern American policing. To build upward from it, we need to do even more. In a government of laws, our legal authority rests on law. In a nation, community, and neighborhood, our working authority must be earned during each shift, over and over, every day. It must be earned from the men, women, and children we serve and protect. Call it our legitimacy. We earn legitimacy by speaking and acting with justice not only in formal conformity with the law, but also in informal accord with the community’s values and perceptions. This informal component of law enforcement is called procedural justice. It requires each officer to demonstrate transparent regard for the community’s well-being in everything he or she does and says. Fail to earn legitimacy, and officers can do no more than impose the law on a community, much like the troops of some foreign invader.

Even in a government of laws, the police must earn from the community the privilege of honoring and protecting human rights in that community. This has always been true, but it has never been so urgently true as it is today.

To begin with, there are no longer any secrets. Technology has made covert misconduct almost impossible. What happens on the streets is captured by video cameras on poles, on the sides of buildings, mounted on dashboards, and built into smartphones. What happens on the streets is quickly distributed interactively to thousands and then millions across the Internet and on TV. Here’s the new normal: If a thing can be known, it will be known.

The scrutiny is relentless. That can be a good thing; but, in a climate of distrust, the interpretation of that scrutiny is not always fair. In a political, social, and cultural environment that hungers for justice but expects injustice, the impulse to distrust is a reflex. In an election season in which candidates highlight our differences far more stridently than our common needs and values, it is increasingly difficult for police officers to earn the trust and collaboration of the community.

No one ever told me that policing was easy. Therefore, every chance I get, I tell my officers that the law gives them great authority, which means nothing without the trust of the community. It is up to them to earn the trust they must have in order to effectively protect and serve the community. I am an unapologetic champion of community policing, which is all about building relationships with community leaders and street-corner leaders, with business owners and their customers, with teachers and clergy, with the prosperous and the homeless, with fathers, mothers, and their children.

For years, the media has defined us as warriors on the front lines of an endless war on crime. Enough. Soldiers are soldiers. We are guardians—partners with our communities in building, neighborhood by neighborhood, a nation united in the embrace of human rights defined and enabled by law.

Cedric L. Alexander

Author

Cedric L. Alexander is the deputy chief operating officer of public safety in the DeKalb County, Georgia, Public Safety Office.