ITHACA, N.Y.—Members of the Ithaca and Cornell University communities came together to hear from Cedric Alexander about the future of law enforcement and what opportunities for reform are available.
The panel was moderated by Acting Mayor Laura Lewis and Sonia Rucker, vice president of inclusion and belonging at Cornell — a well-timed event considering the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County are currently grappling with how to reform local law enforcement as the Reimagining Public Safety process unfolds.
Alexander currently works as a law enforcement analyst at MSNBC and is a board member of the Innocence Project. Previously, he was president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and worked for more than 40 years in law enforcement including serving as a police chief in DeKalb County, Georgia, among other things.
Lewis and Rucker took turns asking Alexander questions from submissions they had received before opening the floor to attendees with questions.
The first question regarded police departments and the desire to hire more diverse candidates, what strategies may be helpful in doing so, as well as how to properly engage community members to provide a sense of psychological safety.
Alexander responded by saying that, in general, police officer recruitment is challenging regardless of location or community, and that acknowledging that is the place to start, and that a large reason is that younger generations are simply choosing career fields that aren’t policing.
“Young people are finding different things to do, or they’re not staying in those professions very long. If you take policing itself, we were already struggling with trying to recruit people of color into the profession, even before Michael Brown,” he said, referencing the widespread unrest in St. Louis that followed Brown’s killing by police.
Alexander also said that he believes that policing needs to be an effort on the part of the whole community rather than just the policing officials and that creating strategies together is the only way to actively choose methods that work for everyone involved, a frequently cited (though not frequently executed) solution to tension between communities and the police who monitor them.
Following pandemic days that shifted many things online or to schedules that are more appealing to workers, Alexander thinks that policing needs to keep up in terms of how it appeals to the populations it’s recruiting from. “Recruitment, particularly today is probably one of the most important things that we’re going to have to do to advance policing in the 21st century, and we always try to evolve to be better.”
The next question was on the topic of improving communications and addressing concerns related to current systems and protocols in place that were not created with multiple human identities in mind, including members of the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender individuals; international communities for whom English is a second language; and individuals with disabilities.
Alexander shared a story about his work with the University of Minnesota following George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020. During the project, Alexander and his colleagues interviewed hundreds of students, faculty and staff about how they perceived the police department and came to the conclusion that “When you go back out in the world, you are out there with all types of people who are part of our communities,” he said. “I think we just have to acknowledge the fact that diversity is around us all the time. […] To be a leader today, you have to truly love people.”
The third question was about resistance from communities and police departments when implementing law enforcement reform, and what approach is recommended to acknowledge hesitation and concerns.
“If we think about American police, we also have to think about sleep patrols, we have to think about how policing stood up in this country,” Alexander said. “We also got to acknowledge that bringing it up to the 21st century, we’re seeing these number of incidents, where young African American men and women unarmed are being killed by the police.”
Acknowledging the history can help the country move forward and learn from what’s happened before, Alexander said, and understanding how certain communities have been treated by police, both past and present, can help inform how to move forward with rebuilding relationships and ensuring equal treatment. “The reality of it is we don’t know each other until we know each other.”
Now, he said, we’re not just divided by race, but also political parties, but realistically many people have similar struggles that are more unifying than dividing, and being empathetic and willing to problem-solve can benefit everyone.
The next question included how to manage policing in situations of mental illness, addiction and substance abuse disorders and improving the integration of mental health crisis response and policing.
Alexander responded by saying that, while officers do receive trainings that allow for a variety of response capabilities, they aren’t equipped to solve every issue, and that they should be prioritizing their time to prevent crime rather than just respond after the fact.
“Right now, they’re going everywhere, doing everything for everybody, and it doesn’t work well,” he said.
He said that redefining what police officers are expected to do is a critical task in terms of providing wholesome public safety care that works for everyone.
Other questions covered topics of how to motivate officers despite controversy and criticism, to which Alexander said that officers are no different from anyone else, and that encouragement and acknowledgment for the job can go a long way.