The Cedric Alexander Interview
Dr. Alexander is a police chief's chief. The cop whisperer and I talk about why police culture is broken.
Dr. Cedric Alexander could take over any police department in the country, today: New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C. DeKalb County had him for a while as its public safety director. He’s a recognized expert consulting in policing and police culture, advising the Sharon Gay campaign for kicks these days.
I’ve long admired his work. A cop turned clinical psychologist, turned police chief, Alexander literally wrote the book on policing reform. The New Guardians should be required reading at police academies … and probably is at some. His writing has fundamentally influenced my view of modern policing.
He and I spoke at length about the challenges of reforming police culture. The interview is condensed for space and clarity, and to ensure that we both sound as smart as we think we are.
George Chidi: Let me start with this. What do you believe is driving the increase in violent crime in Atlanta? Actually, let me ask that in a broader way. What do you think is driving the increase in violent crime in the country?
Cedric Alexander: I don’t live in Atlanta. My work is on a national level. But I think it's partly a number of reasons. If we look back historically, over time, right, let's go back to the early ‘90s, where there's clear recorded data of high rate of violent crime all across America, in virtually every major city in this country, right? And that would also probably reflect your moderate size and small communities as well, you know, what's relevant for them. But if you think major metropolitan cities, such as New York, Miami, Houston, Dallas, LA, Atlanta – if you think of all these cities together, we saw those enormous spikes.
But over time, we also saw those numbers come down. And now over time, we've seen those numbers come up. And you will often hear from many that say, even though the numbers are in 2019, 2020, they still don't reflect the same level of violence in the early ‘90s.
GC: I don't think people fundamentally understand that.
CA: You have to remember that the early 1990s was 30 years ago. We should not equate today's data to that data. Today, in 2021, this point in crime is significant to the safety and welfare of being people's lives in the here and now. So, to try to equate that to ‘Well, it's not as bad as it used to be.’ No, it's just as bad as it used to be, if not worse, because we should have a higher expectation around our safety and welfare. We should have the technology and more policing and more community involvement to help reduce crime over time. So, if we do not grab hold of this spike we're seeing, it’s going to become a trend, George. This trend will continue to go upward and could surpass any numbers in the past.
The issue is the perception of crime in any community. If you had 500 robberies, say, in your community that year, or 5,000 reported robberies, and then I as a police executive come to you and say, ‘Hey, robberies are down 15%. Right? Yes, that is positive. It's going south. But if I'm a guy that just got hit over the head, George, those numbers don't mean nothing to me. They mean absolutely nothing because I can't proceed. My experience matters, because it happened to me or it happened in my neighborhood or to a family member. It happened somewhere close in proximity to where I reside, where I live, and where I work.
We have this real spike going on in this nation around violent crime. Many want to say, ‘well, this COVID driven.’ Well, it’s not so COVID driven. It’s based on a lot of variables, and these variables have been in our society, which we've yet to fix and really haven't done anything about. Education. Housing, Unemployment. Disparities in our healthcare system based on your based on your race and on your economic condition, right? Lead poisoning. Domestic violence. All these variables and others are what I refer to as public safety issues.
Now, you’ll notice I did not name one: police. Police are part of public safety, but it is not the public safety. Your health care is your public safety. Your ability to have an education, and that of your children is your public safety. Living in housing is your public safety – decent housing, right? All these things are part of public safety. And what we have not done, categorically – what elected officials and appointed officials have not done for a variety of different reasons – we have not fixed these other things. So, the only institution that is visible and left to confront these other things is police.
We send police out, ill-trained, to deal with every one of these issues I just mentioned, including mental health.
GC: It's hard for the public to draw a straight-line argument that says improving housing will reduce crime. The political talent necessary to make that argument heard generally doesn't exist. That's frustrating to me, because I can see the connection. But it's because I'm looking at it the way you are.
You're alluding to a problem with training and police. I'd like you to expand on that.
CA: So when I say training as it relates to these five or six variables, are we training our police to manage mental health in our communities? We know statistically when we look at the numbers – you can go to any county jail in any part of America, and the county sheriff will tell you 60, 70, 80% of my population is mental health. We are locking up people with mental health illnesses. No treatment. And we’re seeing this is circular – and that includes drug and alcohol. That is a diagnosable DSM-V diagnosis. And I can tell you that as a trained clinical psychologist.
But here's the key. Elected officials can get out of their political way, and start addressing this and taking responsibility. You always come with the politics and talking about it, ‘well, we want to create affordable housing, we're going to do this, we're going to do that we're going to do this.’ At the end of everybody’s shift, what has been done? We can show that if people are living in decent, affordable, safe communities, crime will be down. If people are being dealt with, are getting treatment that they need, we're going to see that when crime is going down. All these variables have to be followed.
And we cannot any longer in Atlanta or any other community provide that lip service. I get it, you get it, Sharon Gay gets it, because for too long, we can talk the game, and we can do a patchwork kind of piece. ‘Well, we build some affordable housing over here, or we got some folks and mental health over there.’ This has to be a full court press. This has to be a mission. This has to be people on the same page, regardless of what side of the aisle you set in order to address these issues, if you want to see something effectively done.
I will tell you this as a former psychologist. I will tell you this as a former two time chief, I will tell you this as a former leader of homeland security in Dallas, Texas, I will tell you these things based on experience, on education and on knowledge and having been because I’ve seen it and dealt with it: police cannot fix this by themselves. Now let's talk about police training.
GC: Sure. You’ve got a lot to say about the recruitment and training process. You see a substantial need for reforms here, you’ve told me.
CA: Right. When we talk about police training, we've got to talk about recruitment. We have got to make sure we're recruiting the right people to do this very complex job. They have to have a sense of compassion towards people. And we got to stop just looking at your driving record and credit history, what their grade point average was in school. All that's important. But I’ve got to dig deeper into who this applicant is. I’ve got to go beyond the four names that he or she put on the application for me to talk to.
And here's what I don't know: do these people have a sense of compassion? Do they have the ability to embrace differences that are very apparent in this country, regardless if and when all the people look the same? They may not all be the same. Or think the same. You follow me?
We need people who have that capacity to understand the importance of compassion. We have to train them, yes, to protect you and to protect themselves. Yes, they get the basic fundamentals of protection: ground fighting, firearms training, et cetera, et cetera. Yes, they have to have de-escalation training, mental health training, anything that we can provide to them.
But once we recruit and train them we must make community part of their training. Bring in community leadership in training. Observe them. They help train these officers into a role model for what needs to be done. I can train them to run, gun and shoot, but we also need to train them to do what 80% of they’re going to do out there every day. And that is engage people around crimes oftentimes that are not violent in nature.
Supervisors are very key in all of this. Because I can recruit well. I can train well. But if I don't have good supervision ... take George Floyd. That guy put his foot on his neck. Those three officers with him – junior officers. One hadn't even been out of the damn academy for five days. He hadn’t done a week on the job by himself. And he lost his job because of a 19-year-veteran.
GC: I get it. Recruiting is interesting, because of one of the complaints that police officers and prospective police officers have is how long the recruiting process actually takes. It’s selective even now. Some big city police departments can be an 18-month process for some folks to get recruited, and that of 100 applicants, you'll turn five of them into police.
CA: You’ve got to make police attractive. And how do you make it attractive? It’s a number of things. We have to pay them well. We have to give them good benefits. We have to give them adequate training – the training, and the expectations that we have in them when we recruit. Their training needs to be commensurate with their pay, because we're asking them to do a lot.
But that leads me to another thing here, George: we also have to define what it is we want police officers to do. Because they can't do it all. They should be doing prevention. But what are they doing? Running from call to call to call to call to call. But we should be doing prevention, and they would never be able to do prevention like that. You will never be able to hire enough police officers. I don't care what any politician says. That sounds great. ‘Oh, I hired 1000 police officers.’ That isn’t reflected in your crime. And just because your crime may go down 10 to 12%, is it because you hired these officers? How do you know that there's a direct correlation scientifically between that and the reduction of crime, which may have reduced anyway?
Because here's what we do know: that we don't know why it ebbs and flows.
GC: That is the hardest thing to tell people. That the science and sociology of crime is not well understood.
CA: Because of the volatility. Think of it like the stock market. There's a volatility that exists in our society. And that volatility could be reduced because we may have arrested someone last year, but we really can't prove that might be affecting what's happening this quarter. But it may not be. It may be because there was a pandemic that came along, already pushing against a stressful environment and made it more stressful. Where would it have impacted the most? Is that the reason for the increase in homicide? COVID? Could that be a reason for the increase in robberies? Carjackings? You get my drift?
GC: Yeah, it's all indirect. You have to infer.
CA: Yeah, so we're attempting to rationalize this stuff. But the scientists, the real criminologists will tell you the, the ebb and flow is sometimes unexplained. But here's what we know we can do. We can train, we can supervise, we can pay them, we'll outfit them, we'll set them to some standard of accountability. That's policing.
But we need to define what it is we want them to do. As a former chief, I don't ever want another police officer going to a barking dog complaint. Here’s a 24-hour number. You can call Animal Control, city code enforcement or whatever. And somebody get up out of their bed and then go and knock on the door, and tell them to bring the dog in the house, whatever the case may be.
I need police officers on the street doing prevention. I don't need another police officer to go to a call and there's a fallen tree.
So the point of it is, we need to train officers, and be clear about what it is we want them to do. So, let's talk about mental health. We know that in our society, we have a lot of mental health problems in our communities. Atlanta is no different than any other major city. But we send offices into these mental health situations with very minimal training. “Oh, well, my officers have had 40 hours of [crisis intervention] CIT training.’ That means they sit in the classroom, listen to somebody tell them something and then check that box. And I'm done. Right?
The training has to go beyond checking the boxes. If I'm going to send an officer to any kind of training, -- de-escalation, for example – or mental health warnings. If you are my supervisor, occasionally you need to show up for a call and see how I'm managing this domestic complaint. You're standing back, observing officer Alexander utilizing some of these skills. Then he will talk at the end of that interaction back at the office at some point.
You say ‘hey, I want to talk to you about that domestic I've observed. You did a great job there.’ You point out the things that you've been taught. What does that do? It reinforces that behavior. Or, ‘oh, Alexander, you could have done a little different here, you know, next time, you know, just slow it down, a little bit more X, Y and Z,’ Whatever. Because that's how you change culture. You don't change culture by saying take the de-escalation class and that's the end of it. You follow what I'm saying?
You've got to make sure that we train. But we also have to be evaluate some of these things with training officers so that they can get better. And we can use the technology of a body camera to reinforce that training and the things that they're doing well, and we got to get supervisors out here on the streets, with these officers listening to these radios, going to these calls based on their experience.
GC: I have found it surprising that police departments don't more regularly pull bodycam video just at random as a training aid.
CA: And I'm not saying they do or they don't but I suspect they probably don't. And by the way, not all of them are equipped with bodycam. Pretty much all your major cities, sure. What I'm saying relates to Atlanta, like it does anywhere else. But the reason I put any hesitation on the negative beginning, because I don't want people to say, ‘Oh, he don't live in this community. How does he know it?’ I'm sorry, you’re just like any other major community in this country.
GC: There are things in Atlanta that I would say are different.
CA: Every city has something different. That means each city has a different personality. But I think to my point around this whole crime issue, everybody's struggling the same. These numbers are going up and spiking around homicides and violent crimes, the same. Does it have a personality difference from that of Chicago? Yes. And Chicago is different from Miami and Miami is different from LA.
Right. You're making an eloquent argument in favor of getting more funding for mental health care at the street level. The irony is that that's sort of the underlying argument of the defund the police movement. Frankly, the marketing of that was terrible. I mean, I think it's a good idea to, you know, up-fund mental health services, if you want to see crime reduced and the call on police officers to be reduced. But it's become this political problem.
CA: If you think about following George Floyd, a lot of emotions were being spewed out. Some of those words that came along with that emotion was ‘defund the police.’ And now it's left up to your interpretation. But in the raw form, in that moment, when people are looking at Floyd dying on the street, they said ‘defund those people, take their money away from them, make them go away.’ And then it got politicized. It got politicized to a point that it even cost legislative seats.
We need to drop back five yards, and we need to get rid of this whole ‘defund’ language. What we need to look at is how do we re-engineer public safety in our communities that make sense, so that we're adequately and properly funding our police doing exactly what we need them to do. We're funding, mental health, funding affordable housing, funding all these different elements, right? That could make a difference.
And we need to bring in scientists – you have them there – to help us measure effect and understand that there is no overnight solution. But in the meantime, we have to take a look at our police department, because we’ve got these high crime high spikes in the moment right now that we’ve got to deal with. You’ve got to have a police department that feels like they're supported by their city leaders and by their elected mayor, who's going to make sure that they get everything that they need to carry out their mission. They need a clear mission. All those things we can do right now. We can pay them, we can make sure they get good benefits. We can raise the accountability not just in terms of words, but in terms of actions.
We can find an excellent chief around in this country to chief this police department, someone who was open minded, someone who is respected, someone who has the ability to be a change agent. I don't want to see another chief in another city, anywhere, just taking the job just to say they’re a chief. You got to bring the noise today.
GC: That’s fascinating to me. Because trying to change police culture is one of the most difficult problems, just as an organizational behavior problem. It's a hard problem to solve. There are very capable administrators who are not going to be able to do that, because it takes a very different set of leadership skills than the ones created by the current police organizational culture.
CA: Yeah, but you have to seek out people who have those skills. We just say, ‘okay, we're going to get a chief from another major city to come into our major city,’ like that’s going to fix it. That may not necessarily be true, because we're not asking the right question.
When it comes to who we're going to hire as our leaders today, we’ve got to have a different set of questions than what we've asked in the past. I need to be able to see demonstrated examples of where someone helped change a culture now. In many parts of the country, you have very strong union unions that are protected by state law. You don't necessarily have that here. No, not the labor unions that you do in the north. That makes it very challenging, oftentimes, to change culture.
But in a city like Atlanta, where you have unions, they are reasonable. They will sit down, they will talk with you. And you can work through these things together with their help, but also, more importantly, than anything else, with leadership you can change those cultures.
When I chiefed in Rochester, New York in the mid-2000s, we had strong unions, let me tell you.
GC: New York Police unions, very, very strong,
CA: They all come under the same umbrella in New York State. They all are governed by the same state law that worked for them. But I still was able to make adjustments in that culture.
When you make them, it really starts with you at the top of the hill. It’s what I role model. My command staff is appointed staff. I don't need to hire people who are just going to kiss the ring. I need to hire people who are effective in making something happen. So, if you were one of my deputy chiefs, and you are over uniformed patrol, there are certain expectations that I'm going to have if you want to take on that responsibility that has to be measured over time. Because you’re not going to go work in corporate America without measurements of your performance.
GC: I agree. I do. It's just that police culture is very different from corporate culture.
CA: It is. But it's doable. It's hard for me to explain it because I've just done it, I guess. But it is doable. You understand what I'm saying? From a leadership perspective, my expectations roll down. A lot of times what happens, you will have people who will stand at your command, ‘sure, chief Alexander, I want to work with you.’ And they may be good people, but do they really have what my expectations are as folks in that chain of command, to carry out the mission all the way down to the last person?
Something that I learned a long time ago from a very strong union boss. He said to me: cops do not join police departments to join unions. That isn’t why they become police officers. They become police officers because they want to be police officers first. Bad management creates strong unions. I rest of my case.
GC: Do you think that the way police training works right now can create the kind of leadership that you're talking about?
CA: No. [Silence.]
Are you talking about the police officer level or the executive level?
GC: I'm talking about the executive level. I'm thinking about how what you're describing doesn't sound like you're going to typically be able to promote from the ranks in order to get the kind of executive-level leadership that you're talking about. It almost sounds like you'd need two tracks.
CA: Right? We’ve got to train people along the way. Here's what's happened in police. You and I have come on together. We’re from the same neighborhood. We both signed up and we come on the police department together. I make sergeant while you may stay back and make detective, or maybe you remain an officer. Once I become a sergeant, do you know what kind of training I received? None.
How did I learn how to be the sergeant? Probably based on my last sergeant. If I had a good one, I might learn something. If I didn’t, I ain’t learned jack. You follow what I'm saying?
We’ve got to be able to promote. But we’ve also got to train people to go into these roles with expectations, and evaluate them based on that. So, the next rung up is lieutenant. I become number one on the list for lieutenant. I get promoted. What was my training for lieutenant? None.
CA: It goes right on up the road, right on up. One day, I've done a great job in my civil service rank and the chief comes to me and says, ‘Hey, Alexander, I want to make you one of my ten deputy chiefs, appointed positions, you work at my pleasure now.’ If you have not been adequately trained along the way, it plays itself out along the way.
This is the sophistication that we’ve now got to build into policing as a culture. We’ve got to begin to not just train the grassroots officers – we’ve got to make sure that they have good supervision, trained supervision, people whose evaluations are based on where they should be in their supervisory level. Same thing for the lieutenants, captains, whatever, right? Right on up the chain.
So, they're saying, ‘Well, hey, I went to the FBI Academy.’ Admirable, but it alone doesn’t get you what you need. You have to take the initiative right now, to train yourself to read, to study, to work under others when you can or to be able to talk to others.
And I will tell you, George, why I feel this way. I'm not that guy who came up the ranks. You know what happened to me? I left Dade County in 1992 to go back to school, to become a clinical psychologist. I was a school resource officer. I never went beyond the rank of slick sleeve. I got a doctorate in clinical psychology and practiced for five years. I became friends with the mayor of Rochester. And he came to me one day and he said, ‘Cedric, I'm having problems. His police department was in trouble with community, because of some of the same stuff we're dealing with today. And this was 20 years ago.
So, he says ‘Cedric, with your background as a police officer and your training as a clinical psychologist, can you come in?’ He brought me in as a deputy chief. Now, I'd never been a sergeant, lieutenant, captain ... any of those things before. I want you to find anybody on this planet who has outperformed me as a chief. My record stands on its own.
How did I become a good leader? Being a clinical psychologist helped a lot. I admit it. I’m not saying that every chief need to go off and become a clinical psychologist. But I had to go learn. I had to go train. I went up to Chicago, when I became deputy chief, shadowing and following the superintendent in Chicago. I learned. I read. I studied others. And I just didn't sit there just to say I was a deputy chief. Two and a half years later, I became chief in that department. You can call Rochester Police Department right now. And ask them who was the most popular chief in that department? And they will tell you, without hesitation, Dr. Cedric Alexander. And that is the god heaven truth.
GC: So, I'm wondering, you've got criminal justice degrees. People go to college to go learn how to be a cop. And there's a general assumption that those folks turn out to be better police officers, generally, That’s the line. I'm asking because I want to test it against your own experience.
CA: So, let me challenge that. I was a sociology major by default. And when I was a young kid, okay, let me just study sociology; it’s easier than being a math major. [laughs] I got a degree in sociology, and then some years later as I matured, I decided to go into counseling. And that's how I get a masters of marriage and family therapy. But that's my journey. I'm not saying everybody should.
But to your question, what I am seeing is anytime that you can receive any formal education – good formal education – right now, theoretically, it is supposed to help us to learn how to think critically. And one thing that has to be integrated into policing, or into any profession is that you have to learn how to think critically. Theoretically, this is what colleges and universities are teaching us how to do. And that may or may not be true, but we have to take it upon ourselves.
So, if a young kid to me says, ‘I want to be a police officer, Dr. Alexander, I want to go to school and want to get my degree, because I may want to go and do some other things,’ right? What I would say to that young man or woman is that you don't necessarily have to have a criminal justice degree, or sociology: study something that is going to deal with the interactions of people. It could be social, or rather, you studied communications, or rather you study something that teaches us how to connect to people? Because that's going to be 80% of what you do.
We need critical thinkers, particularly in professions as law enforcement, where you'd have to make a decision. I'm not even talking about that split-second, in-the-shoot decision, right? I'm talking about just coming to my house, me and my wife are into it, and we're barking back and forth with each other. And you've been cool, you've been calm, you're doing everything trying to do. But you also thinking critically about everything.
GC: I see how that would connect to questions of abuse of authority. I see what you're saying in terms of training and recruitment that you shouldn't have to that somebody should have the instinct necessary to be able to make that judgment call.
CA: You've got to have compassion for people. This is why you recruit for compassion. You have to have compassion. When they had George Floyd on the ground, this guy had been out of the academy for four days. And I know this because I talked to his instructors at the University of Minnesota, where he had just graduated. His instructor told me he was astounded when they saw him at the foot of George Floyd. The shot caller was Chauvin. That kid, turned four days off FTO training by himself, says to Chauvin ‘shouldn’t we let him breathe,’ and what does Chauvin say? ‘Let him stay where he is.’
This kid did not have the power in police culture to overturn that 19-year veteran. I bet to this day he wishes he had got up and knocked the daylights out of Chauvin. You have to have compassion for people.
GC: I get it. It's this Milgram experiment kind of situation where authority is powerful. Authority is powerful and being able to overcome that.
CA: Police officers have incredible power – the power to take a life justifiably and the power to remove someone from basic fundamental freedoms. We’ve got to get away from this old style of police training. We’ve got to train for human skills, human interactions. We’ve got to look for people who have compassion.
GC: Right. And that's the problem. Because there aren't a lot of people who know how to do that. I mean, that's there's a shortage of that kind of skill.
CA: When recruiting the next chief, I'm not asking the standard questions everybody else asked. How do you drive down crime? Tell me about community policing? All that stuff is basic, fundamental.
Give me demonstrated successes of how he helped change culture in some form or fashion. How do you promote people? How do you measure their accountability? And how do you show up? And do you really understand that you don't drive that crap by yourself, right?
There is no data out there to reflect that solely hiring police officers drives down crime. Here's the thing. I can put 100 police officers out on Peachtree up in Buckhead right now. But how long can you sustain that?
GC: Yeah, but you tell people that you're not looking at the number of police officers as an indicator of your ability to fight crime and heads will explode. I mean, from the public's perspective, that's how they want it. That's the measurement they've been told to expect.
CA: That's what they've always been told since the beginning. You can give me 3,000 police officers, but if I don't utilize them adequately, I just got 3,000 police officers. That’s all. That may not give us a real reflection of what should have an effect on the reduction in crime. What has an effect on reduction? It’s exactly what Sharon Gay is talking about. We've got to address the same thing you're talking about and I’m talking about. We’ve got to address these fundamental issues, that every politician — and she ain’t a politician – but every politician talks about.
But goddamn, we’ve had the same conversations every four years. And I don’t just mean Atlanta. I’m talking in general, across this country. We hear people say that. We can't blame everything on COVID.