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Perspectives: Cedric Alexander on police and the community

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Cedric Alexander's office is sparse and uncluttered. There are the usual mementos, awards, and framed diplomas you find in most executive offices. The American flag stands behind his desk, and a black and white photo of him sitting near President Obama is strategically placed on a shelf, as if to oversee what goes on in the room.

Alexander replaced Carlos Carballada as deputy mayor earlier this year, and nearly every branch of city government reports to him. But his title may not adequately describe his position. He and the mayor have known each other for years; he obviously admires her, and he seems to be both an adviser and confidant.

Among the areas he oversees is the work of the Rochester Police Department. He's had plenty of preparation for that role; he served as deputy police chief and interim police chief under former Mayor Bill Johnson. He's a 40-year law-enforcement veteran, has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and has often appeared on CNN as a guest commentator – usually on matters dealing with policing.

"I have an opportunity to be in a city that I know has the spirit to evolve into something truly, truly great." - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • "I have an opportunity to be in a city that I know has the spirit to evolve into something truly, truly great."

Tall and fit for a man in his early 60's, he tends to stare at you with an intensity that can be a little intimidating. Maybe that comes from the weight of the subjects he's often asked about: shootings of unarmed black men and attacks on police officers.

In 2015, an Obama administration official asked Alexander to be a member of the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing – a milestone in an already storied career. He is wholly committed to policing as a public service, the vital role of protecting and nurturing communities.

But Alexander hasn't escaped sharp criticism. Law enforcement – and media, too, for that matter – have turned to him in times of crisis involving communities of color. That's placed him squarely in the intersection between "black lives matter" and "blue lives matter" sentiments.

After he wrote an opinion piece for CNN, "Attacks on Police Are an Attack on Community," someone posted this online comment:

"Absolutely no one should be harmed unnecessarily during an encounter with police. That said, I find it ironic that every police death is viewed as an earth shattering tragedy while the victims of rogue cops are swept under a rug, have their name dragged through the mud, and very rarely see justice. The lack of concern for the abuse meted out by police is staggering. Black lives matter, all lives matter, but apparently, cops lives matter more."

But Alexander is hardly an ally of rogue cops, and he says he understands where that kind of criticism comes from. In a recent interview, he talked at length about the need for improving the relationship between police and communities of color, the increasing expectations we're placing on law enforcement, and the country's failure to adequately address mental health problems.

Given his background and the breath of his new duties, it's hardly a stretch to picture him as a potential successor to Mayor Lovely Warren, if she pursued another office. Alexander insists he didn't return to Rochester with a political motive in mind, though.

"I came back here because I have a footprint here," Alexander said. "I have an opportunity at this time in my life to be in a city that I know has the spirit to evolve into something truly, truly great."

While Alexander's responsibilities don't include overseeing the police department, clearly his criminal justice knowledge and experience will be valuable. And in our interview with him, we focused on that area. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Alexander rose to national attention three years ago, during the unrest following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, Alexander was public safety director for DeKalb County, Georgia, a large metropolitan area that includes a small slice of Atlanta. He was also president of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement, and in that role, he reached out to Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.

"On the night that Michael Brown was killed," said Alexander, "I had been president for a month maybe, a few weeks literally. Being the national president of NOBLE, I felt some responsibility in terms of what we were beginning to see take place there, and that was to reach out to the local leadership and police."

Jackson agreed to meet Alexander, and when several local news stations learned about it, their reporters flew with him to Ferguson. CNN – which is headquartered in Atlanta – was already on site.

"The city was really tense, hugely tense at that point," Alexander said. "Throughout the course of that weekend, I ended up being interview by ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, CNN, MSNBC, the whole gamut. My weekend was filled with discussing the challenges between police and community relations."

As a result, Alexander became a regular guest commentator on CNN, and he still gets calls from media concerning policing. The events in Ferguson also led to his participation on President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, whose 11 members included law enforcement and civil rights experts.

"We traveled to three cities across this country: to DC twice, Phoenix, and Cincinnati," Alexander said. "Some of the best minds in the country in psychology, sociology, criminology, civil rights leaders, human rights leaders, LGBTQ groups, were involved."

After 60 days, the group produced a report that included recommendations for changing police tactics, with the aim of improving police-community relations. It's clear from reading the report, whose introduction quotes Obama, that the president was concerned both about civil unrest and about the credibility of the criminal justice system.

"We met with President Obama at the White House," Alexander said, "and he spent two hours with us. It was incredible, because the guy is known not to spend two hours with anybody, including world leaders. But he spent two hours with this task force, and when he came into that meeting you could tell he had read every word of that document. He was just as familiar with that document as we were."

Cedric Alexander: "There is a lot of room for growth and trust in this community." - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Cedric Alexander: "There is a lot of room for growth and trust in this community."

By far the most important recommendation in the report is the need for officers to build trust and legitimacy, Alexander said.

"Law enforcement culture," says the report, "should embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public."

We asked Alexander whether he believes that level of trust exists in Rochester.

"No," he said, "there is a lot of room for growth and trust in this community."

Warren, he said, "knows how serious this is," and he pointed to Warren administration programs like Clergy on Patrol as examples of current efforts to bridge the relationship between police and community.

The Obama Task Force report says that law enforcement agencies should have clear and comprehensive polices on the use of force, including de-escalation training. The Rochester Police Department is getting this training, Alexander said, but training isn't a single program.

"It's ongoing," he said. "There's no end point to training and then you move on. No; training has to continue, because it's like a perishable skill. If you don't use it and practice it, you lose it.

"As we continue to evolve and we use body cameras and we're doing diversity training and we're doing bias training and we're doing de-escalation training: all these things benefit police and the community over time."

The Task Force report also recommends some form of civilian oversight of police departments, but they can take different forms, Alexander said. Every community is different, he said.

"Some communities say that they would benefit from having an independent civilian review board after a police-involved incident" such as a shooting, Alexander said. "Then there are other communities that say: No, we don't need it; in our community, we have the full faith and trust in our criminal justice system, from law enforcement to the courts.

"Then there may be other communities that are much more challenged around the issue of police trust and legitimacy, such as here in Rochester."

"The whole idea is not to pin someone with what went wrong," Alexander said, "but to look at what we're doing and determine how we can do better. If there is blame to be placed anywhere, we have to make sure that blame goes to the right places.

"So we have to have individuals who are looking for truth and justice in a balanced way. And they have a commitment to making sure that people in this community are treated fairly based on their complaint. And they have the added responsibility of making sure that the officer who may be under scrutiny is treated in a very fair and balanced way."

"Those two entities are partners to each other," Alexander said. "Police and the communities they serve are partners, and this is vitally important but sometimes gets lost in this conversation. You cannot have a community without police, and you cannot have police without a community."

"I think we still have an opportunity," Alexander said, "to explore 21st century ideas about how we create a civilian review board that is going to be mutually accepted by most of the community and by the police and by the mayor's administration.

"Transparency is key to having trust develop. Transparency is where trust comes from. If it's believed that something has been hidden from you, how can you trust what you can't see? You can't."

"There has to be honesty," Alexander said. "There has to be truth, and there has to be inclusivity with people from the community. And also from police who need to sit on the board. They have to balance each other out to develop a kind of leadership that the community feels good about. That it's not a board out to attack police. It's a board that's out to seek the truth and what's fair and equitable."

Alexander, like the mayor he works for, stressed the difficult job and difficult circumstances police officers face.

"We want our police officers to manage every conceivable thing that occurs perfectly," he said. "And they can't. They're human beings."

A few years ago, many activists in communities across the country, including those in Rochester, were pressing for police officers to wear body cameras. Obama provided funding for cities to acquire them. The verdict on how useful they are and what they tell us is still out, however.

"They do give you an added piece of information that we did not have," Alexander said. "The camera sees what the camera sees, and it records what occurs. But it's an additional piece of evidence that can be used to help determine if someone is right or wrong. It gives some added description of what occurred when you come up against a he said-she said situation.

"But this is what we have to keep in mind: It's just an additional piece of information that we didn't have. It is not the end-all or be-all. Depending on when an event occurred, you always have to consider when the camera went on and how much of an event it captured. Out of its totality, it may capture a piece of it."

Also providing a piece of information, Alexander said: the people with cellphones making videos of an incident.

"This is good for the police and the community," Alexander said. "What we're looking for is what happened? How did it happen? How did it evolve and how was it concluded? And that's what everyone involved is trying to do – reach a conclusion about what happened."

Police officers, criminologists, and psychologists have not always worked collaboratively, which makes Alexander's background as a clinical psychologist unique, says former Mayor Bill Johnson. Alexander was ahead of his time, says Johnson.

"He is someone who has really worked hard to apply his expertise directly to the community, and not be just theoretical," says Johnson. "He counseled officers, and I relied on him quite a bit to help me understand why young people would pursue a life of crime. We were always struggling with intervention strategies."

Alexander's broad understanding shows up when he talks about such things as the public's perception of crime. "You could tell me that robberies are down by 50 percent," he said. "But if I'm someone who just got hit over the head and my wallet was taken from me, you're not going to tell me that robberies are down 50 percent."

His breadth of understanding also shows up when he talks about Rochester's high rate of gun violence. "There are definitely guns out there," he said. "They're coming from the black market, guns that have been stolen from homes and cars. You can get guns in a variety of different ways without ever having to step foot in a gun store or show.

"But here's the other important thing to understand about gun violence in our city: We may hear that a shooting occurred on some block in the city. Let me tell you something, you can walk down that street and knock on doors and you're going to find some criminal element. But you'll also find some very fine citizens in these neighborhoods, and these are the people who hold these communities together."

"People are there because that's where they can afford to be, that's where they have to be, and in many cases, you'll find that's where they want to be," Alexander said. "They've lived there for years, for generations, and they think, 'Why should I have to move? This is my home.' They still keep their grass cut. They still keep their house painted, despite what may be going on around them. And our public safety has to be there for them to help us fight crime."

Alexander is particularly concerned about the country's failure to help people with mental health problems. And he said he is especially troubled by the movement during the last 30 years toward criminalizing people with mental health problems.

"The whole mental health issue is something I am going to be exploring in a much deeper way in the new year," he said. "Back in 2005, myself and former Mayor Bill Johnson developed the Emergency Disturbed Person Response Team. That was a response to in-custody deaths that had been experienced by the Rochester Police Department."

"We learned that the police did nothing wrong in any of those events," Alexander said. But they also learned that the department was seeing more and more people who were struggling with untreated mental illness. That was about 12 years ago, he said, and the situation has grown worse.

"As communities have become more challenged, as poverty has become more entrenched, and as employment in this country changed, we're seeing more social ills and mental health issues," Alexander said. "But we have to find a way to make sure that we're sending people to the right place or person for help. Police often come in contact with people with mental health problems, but jail is usually not the first place for them to go."

The country is also facing a major problem with drug addiction, Alexander said.

"There's a North Clinton in every city, and it's not just in our city," he said. "We have a large population in this country of people who have addictions. Police are overwhelmed, and we're constantly chasing those who are selling the drugs and those who are trying to acquire the drugs. It's constant. We have a serious addiction problem in this country, and we're facing new challenges, especially in this opioid crisis."

The city is trying to clean up problem areas and, within the resources it has, introduce more treatment options. "But the problem is, we have that going on, and we also have a lot of other things going on that we have to attend to in terms of calls for service," Alexander said.

The explosion of opioid addiction is adding to the problem – although there's a difference in how the opioid crisis is being treated in comparison to the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 80's and early 90's. That difference hasn't gone unnoticed in communities of color, Alexander said.

"Well, it just doesn't involve black and brown people anymore: that's what you want me to say. But it is true. You go back to the war on drugs from the late 1980's to the early 90's, and I could have an addiction, and if I was caught using crack, rocks, or whatever, I wasn't offered any treatment. Off to jail you go.

"But now there's a shift in the country, and it's not criminalized to the same extent. We're trying to find a way to treat people, which is what we should have been doing for the last 30 years. You had whole communities in this country, communities of color, that got demonized and criminalized with addiction. When help was offered, it was miniscule.

"We're seeing a larger group of people with drug problems that are not black and brown using and dying from this horrific drug. It leaves the impression in some communities that you didn't give a damn when my mom or uncle or brother or dad had an addiction, and they're serving all these years for a small amount of crack cocaine."

Alexander draws a distinction, however, between the people who are using drugs and those who are selling them: "Now those people who have large quantities of drugs, people who are clearly selling and not using, now I agree that the hammer needs to come down on them. There needs to be appropriate punishment. Absolutely and positively."

Local police departments don't act in a vacuum. They're affected by national policy and by the tone that presidents and other government officials set. Given Alexander's national experience and his obvious deep admiration for President Obama, we asked for his thoughts about the actions of the new administration. It's been a challenge watching the current administration's effort to erase virtually everything Obama did, Alexander said. But then he echoed many of the themes of Obama's presidency: unity, responsibility, and respect for the institution of the presidency.

And he brought up a comment made by a white Johannesburg official when Alexander was in South Africa to train police chiefs there:

"He looked like he may have been of German heritage," Alexander said, "but he was so committed to making that country work. He said to me, 'Your President Trump is something.'

"It wasn't a complimentary remark, and what I said to him was, 'Yes, we have our challenges in our country. But one thing I will not do is, I will not stand on foreign soil and talk badly about any American president. Now what else do you want to talk about?'"

"We're going to have an opportunity to go back to the polls in three years," Alexander said. "In the meantime, we all have a responsibility as Americans to not allow ourselves to be divided by race, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else, because here's what's funny about America: One week you have Charlottesville and you have people duking it out on the street, and two weeks later you have Houston and you have everybody coming to help. That's who we are as a nation."

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