Opinion by Cedric L. Alexander
Updated: Sun, 17 Jan 2021 02:56:27 GMT
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.
When DC Metropolitan Police officer Michael Fanone collapsed on the ground after he was repeatedly Tasered by Trump supporters who had stormed the US Capitol on January 6, his attackers started stripping him of his ammunition, police radio and badge.
"Some guys started getting a hold of my gun and they were screaming out, 'Kill him with his own gun,'" Fanone later told CNN.
"Kill him with his own gun." That was one of many, many incriminating comments the insurgent mob shouted for the world to hear that day. Another was: "We were invited here. We were invited by the President of the United States."
It is not hard to connect these dots. In fact, Jacob Chansley, the so-called "QAnon Shaman" who was arrested and charged in connection with the riot, later told the FBI, according to a complaint, that "he came as a part of a group effort, with other 'patriots' from Arizona, at the request of the President that all 'patriots' come to D.C. on January 6, 2021."
Clearly, the rioters of January 6 believed they had been "invited" to the Capitol to stop Congress from the constitutionally mandated counting of electoral ballots in a desperate attempt to overturn the 2020 election. They took this invitation as license to stage a vicious insurrection.
Throughout the last five years, President Donald Trump has embraced the police and repeatedly called himself the "president of law and order," even though he consistently defied this both through his words and actions.
In 2017, Trump endorsed police brutality, telling officers on Long Island, "When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just seen them thrown in, rough. I said: 'Please don't be too nice.'" He went on the describe the act of shielding a suspect's head while putting them in the back of a police car and said, "You can take the hand away, OK?"
In a March 13, 2019 interview, Trump told Breitbart News, "I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people..."
No wonder the insurgents of January 6 assumed the police were fellow members of the cult of Trump. Indeed, two Capitol Police officers have been suspended and at least 10 others are under investigation for their behavior during the riot.
When the rioters encountered brave and honorable officers like Michael Fanone, who did not behave as they expected, they felt betrayed. These Trump supporters said so themselves when they chanted "Traitors!" at the police. One woman in a Trump 2020 sweatshirt said, "You should be on our side."
Despite the "Blue Lives Matter" flags many carried, they turned on Fanone, attacked Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died from his injuries, and injured more than 50 other officers.
Sworn police officers are beholden to no president or other official. They get their authority from the Constitution. But they need more than legal authority. They need legitimacy, which is earned -- from the public -- by acting truthfully, transparently and justly.
Even though the government may give police officers the legal rights to carry out their duties to enforce the law, they lose their credibility when the community no longer see them as trustworthy.
Trump isn't the only one to blame when this erosion of legitimacy occurs. Those police officers, police leaders and police unions who have reciprocated the corrupt embrace of a lawless president have betrayed not only the public trust but the trust of their brothers and sisters in uniform.
Never in American history has the legitimacy of police departments across the country been in greater peril. The killings of George Floyd and too many other unarmed, Black Americans, have already created a crisis in policing. This has been exacerbated by Trump, who has politicized his support for the police while chipping away at our institutions and undermining our faith in government as a whole.
For many people, police officers are the government. When you are in enough trouble to dial 911, it isn't the president, Congress or the Supreme Court that comes running. It is a cop. Law enforcement is government taking direct action. But a lawless government cannot be a legitimate government, and police agencies acting in the name of this government cannot expect the people to grant them credibility.
Any attempts to fix this crisis will require reestablishing trust between the police and the community they serve. Every officer on every patrol must speak truthfully and act justly.
We in law enforcement must work to repair our reputation, both in the eyes of the public and among ourselves. But, as an operational arm of government, we can go only so far on our own. It also falls to President-elect Joe Biden to restore the legitimacy his predecessor imperiled, degraded and destroyed.
President Biden must have the courage to go beyond police reforms, and push for a reimagining of law enforcement. He must task government and the nation with answering this radical yet basic question: What do we want from our police?
President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, on which I served, has given Biden much to build on. It painted a picture of policing, in which officers should be professional, accountable, transparent and self-monitoring in order to learn from any mistakes.
The incoming administration needs to restore and build upon this vision, which was flatly rejected by the Trump administration. It is urgent work President Biden must undertake beginning on January 20. We are running out of time -- and good will from the public -- to restore the police's legitimacy.