News & Politics » Feature

Is Cedric Alexander fit to be Chicago's top cop?

The reported front-runner in the search for Chicago's next police superintendent is a national voice on public safety. But residents of DeKalb County, Georgia, say he's failed to fix a police department sorely in need of reform.

by

1 comment

On December 29, 2014, Kevin Davis let his friend Terrance Hilyard crash on his couch. Davis, a 44-year-old chef who lived in Decatur, Georgia, was generous in that regard, the kind of person who used tips to pay for an old man's prescriptions, assembled bikes out of scrap parts for kids on his block, and took care of a three-legged pit bull named Tooter. As the night wound down, Davis's girlfriend, April Edwards, wanted to watch television. But Hilyard suddenly became enraged when she turned on the TV. An argument ensued, and Hilyard stabbed Edwards in the arm before fleeing Davis's apartment.

As Davis treated Edwards's wound, he called 911 for help, and stayed on the line with a dispatcher for 11 minutes. The clock neared nine when a gun went off near the front door. Fearing Hilyard's return, Davis got his handgun and walked toward the doorway. Near the front door, he found his dog, slain and in a pool of blood. He then saw Joseph Pitts of the DeKalb County Police Department, who had apparently shot the animal. Pitts ordered Davis to drop his weapon. Davis didn't listen, but neither did he threaten the officer. The cop fired twice, hitting Davis in the abdomen. After transporting Davis to the hospital, police charged him with aggravated assault.

Two days later, Davis died from his wounds, handcuffed to a Grady Memorial Hospital bed. A DeKalb County Police Department spokesperson offered a brief statement that included a few basic facts about the incident. Pitts went on paid administrative leave, which is department protocol following an officer-involved shooting.

For 38 days, DCPD conducted an internal investigation of one of its own officers. Only after protesters camped outside the local courthouse did Cedric Alexander, the county's deputy chief operating officer of public safety, hand over the probe to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. It was the first time the department had brought in an independent investigator for an officer-involved shooting.

"Hindsight is always 20-20," Alexander said at a February 2015 press conference where he addressed the Davis shooting and the question of whether Pitts could've handled things differently.

About ten weeks before Davis died, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in the south-side Archer Heights neighborhood. Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden claimed the teen ignored officers' orders to drop a knife and lunged at police. A lawsuit forced the release of dash-cam video, which revealed the truth: Van Dyke shot the teen 16 times as McDonald walked away from police. The officer was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct. Amid calls for his resignation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired CPD superintendent Garry McCarthy on December 1.

Since McCarthy's termination, the Chicago Police Board has conducted a search for a new superintendent that yielded 39 applicants. The board narrowed the pool of candidates to three finalists announced on March 17: Eugene Williams, chief of CPD's Bureau of Support Services, which oversees training and accountability; Anne Kirkpatrick, retired police chief of Spokane, Washington; and Alexander, who oversees Georgia's second-largest police force, which patrols a 271-square-mile area just east of Atlanta that's home to more than 700,000 residents. (Through a spokesperson, Alexander declined an interview request.)

"He's a person who's very comfortable in his skin," Chicago Police Board president Lori Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times speaking of Alexander, who's reportedly the front-runner for the job. "He's going to exude that confidence—not arrogance, but confidence—in a way that will win people over."

Indeed, the 61-year-old's resumé is impressive: he's a lawman with nearly four decades of experience, the black leader of a police force whose rank and file reflects a majority-black community, and an adviser to President Barack Obama on policing issues. But Alexander's record is not without controversy. Though no incident on his watch has garnered as much national scrutiny as the McDonald shooting, critics say that in his nearly three years in DeKalb he has mishandled numerous responses to officer-involved shootings, disregarded community concerns, and moved slowly in enacting locally the same reforms he's recommended to other departments nationally. DeKalb County activists believe Alexander's inability to boost low morale among officers, improve department transparency, and carry through comprehensive mental health training for officers in a department less than a tenth of CPD's size should serve as a cautionary tale for Chicagoans hoping for substantial change.

"His department has done so much damage," says DeLisa Davis, Kevin's sister and herself a DeKalb resident. "How can he fix things in Chicago when he's got so much carnage in his backyard?"

After Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Garry McCarthy in December, the Chicago Police Board conducted a search for a new police superintendent that yielded 39 applicants. - AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST
  • AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
  • After Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Garry McCarthy in December, the Chicago Police Board conducted a search for a new police superintendent that yielded 39 applicants.

In 1977, Alexander joined the Leon County Sheriff's Department in Tallahassee, Florida, the first of many stops in the Pensacola native's lengthy law-enforcement career. After 15 years with various Florida police forces, he went back to school for his PhD in clinical psychology, studying police burnout. In Rochester, New York, Alexander served as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and counseled officers who had endured on-duty trauma. In a matter of eight years, he rose to be the department's chief before moving to Dallas to oversee the security force of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The Atlanta Police Department passed on Alexander for the top-cop spot in 2010. Three years later, he'd return to lead DCPD. The department's low staffing level—869 cops in a department with 1,060 slots—reflected a struggle to recruit and retain quality officers. Furthermore, Alexander inherited a department with fresh incidents of corruption. Between November 2011 and May 2013, at least 16 DCPD officers were arrested for crimes ranging from stealing a wallet to selling protection to drug dealers. At least a quarter of DCPD's officers had received three or more citizen complaints during the previous five years. Even the worst offenders received just a slap on the wrist. For instance, officer Tarik "T.J." Crumpton, who racked up 14 citizen complaints for various offenses over that same five-year period, served a suspension of only one day. (DeKalb's district attorney would eventually charge Crumpton for the 2010 assault of a man outside a sports bar where the officer worked off-duty security shifts, but DCPD let him stay on the force for at least three years after the incident.)

Acknowledging DCPD's tarnished reputation, Alexander vowed to change the department's culture. He pledged to personally show up unannounced on calls and at crime scenes. "When we respond, we respond positive, and we respond in a way with our heads up high," he said at his swearing-in ceremony. His first year offered signs of improvement. DCPD seized $128 million in drugs—the highest amount in at least five years. The department partnered with local ministers to place kids in after-school programs. It also acted quickly to apprehend a mentally ill man who had entered an elementary school with an AK-47; the gunman opened fire on police, but no one inside was harmed. In addition, Alexander urged local officials to allocate increased funding for mental health training. DeKalb's police force grew 5 percent in his first five months with DCPD.

Instead of cracking down on past disciplinary problems, however, Alexander slashed staffing in internal affairs—the department designed to weed out cops like Crumpton—by nearly a third, with the objective of putting more officers on the streets. Alexander announced he was hiring a new internal affairs commander tasked with identifying software that would track those complaints. "This chief is not going to cover up a thing," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But for the most part, says Georgia State University criminal justice professor Dean Dabney, Alexander has done a "reasonable job" in guiding a beleaguered department toward a more inclusive relationship with the community at large. "Rank-and-file police are very much on guard about the climate with the community. The community is very on guard with the police," Dabney says. "He navigated the pitfalls between those two strong, emotional groups."

As DeKalb's police department experienced ups and downs, Alexander's personal stock soared. In July 2014, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives tapped Alexander to be the group's president. One month later, he traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown. After meeting with both cops and citizens, he began speaking nationally about the need for police departments to be diverse, accountable, and transparent. That fall, CNN hired Alexander as a law-enforcement analyst. He weighed in on everything from community policing to Straight Outta Compton, body cameras to how departments could learn from DeKalb's "working relationship" with residents. "We can change policies with the stroke of a pen," Alexander wrote on CNN.com. "If it were only so easy to change the feelings and hearts of people."

A few weeks after Alexander got the CNN gig, Obama recruited the cop to be part of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, an 11-member group asked to outline best practices to "strengthen trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve." After hosting several public meetings, the body released a report last May with 59 policy recommendations to improve community policing, including mandatory mental health training, limitations of force, transparency following police misconduct, and civilian oversight, among others.

"Once you have been identified as a national leader as it relates to public safety, which I have been—not by my liking but by national media—it should humble you, which it does me," Alexander told the Champion, a DeKalb County newspaper, "but it also makes me have to work that much harder."

Alexander at a press conference in 2014. His critics say that in his nearly three years in DeKalb he has moved slowly in enacting locally the same reforms he's recommended to other departments nationally. - HYOSUB SHIN/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION VIA AP
  • Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
  • Alexander at a press conference in 2014. His critics say that in his nearly three years in DeKalb he has moved slowly in enacting locally the same reforms he's recommended to other departments nationally.

Not unlike Chicago, DeKalb County has a prominent racial divide between its northern and southern halves, a stark gap between the rich and poor, and a government plagued by a persistent history of corruption. (More than 40 DeKalb officers, appointees, and officials have gone to prison over the past decade.) It's not hard to imagine a police chief facing such challenges struggling to make safety improvements. Still, as he acknowledges the larger dynamics at play, Nelini Stamp, codirector of the minority advocacy group Rise Up Georgia, questions why Alexander hasn't aggressively pushed reforms in DeKalb that he's recommended to police forces across the country.

"It's a tale of two Cedrics," Stamp says. "There's Cedric on CNN, who says he cares about community policing, is on the president's task force, and critiques other police forces. Then there's Cedric in the Atlanta area who is not accountable to us."

When Alexander called in the GBI to look into the Kevin Davis case, it was a small sign of progress as compared to other nearby police forces that continue to investigate their own officers, says Mawuli Davis, a civil rights attorney based in Decatur, Georgia. (He's not related to Kevin Davis but represented the family after Kevin's death.) And yet it's "not a fix for those of us interested in complete police transparency and accountability."

Kevin's sister DeLisa doesn't think Alexander did enough when it came to ensuring her brother's death was thoroughly investigated. She says he also mismanaged interactions with the aggrieved family members. After Alexander initially ignored her calls, DeLisa says he agreed to two separate meetings—one of which he skipped, and a second where he offered what she describes as a half-hearted apology. "He showed up," DeLisa says. "We got to say our piece on how we were treated by him and the whole department. It went in one ear and out the other." Ultimately, a Georgia grand jury recommended no charges be filed against the officer that shot her brother.

Early last year, Alexander pledged that every DeKalb officer would wear a body camera in a year's time. (He hoped to catch up with departments like Chicago's, which by then had launched a 30-camera pilot program, and is now in the process of rolling out 1,400 cameras in six different districts.) County officials approved $1 million in funding for the program, but testing models and selecting a vendor took longer than expected. The contract hasn't gained final approval, in part due to a failed federal funding request. "We're waiting for them to pay the bills," DCPD major Stephen Fore says.

When it came to mental health training for police, Alexander's department didn't implement the reforms he had promised until after tragedy struck.

On March 9, 2015, DeKalb officer Robert Olsen responded to a disturbance at the Heights at Chamblee apartments in Chamblee, Georgia. The seven-year police veteran had complied with DCPD's minimum requirements for mental health training: a four-hour course as a recruit, followed by a one-hour refresher course, which officers are supposed to take every three years. (He was due for his second course later that year.) At the apartment complex, Olsen came into contact with Anthony Hill, a 26-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran who struggled with bipolar disorder, according to Hill's girlfriend, Bridget Anderson. Hill was acting erratically, crawling around naked outside the apartment. At one point, Olsen felt threatened, his lawyer later claimed—but rather than use a Taser or pepper spray, the officer pulled his gun and shot twice, killing Hill. The GBI conducted an investigation, and Olsen was placed on paid administrative leave.

Alexander "let it wind down, wishing that people would forget about [Anthony]," Anderson says. "But it didn't go away."

Hill's case became national news, prompting DeKalb two months after Hill's death to require crisis intervention training for every new recruit. Meanwhile, Olsen remained on the force until this past January, when he resigned four days after being indicted. According to Fore, just two of every five officers already on the force have now undergone CIT training; the rest are supposed to receive the instruction by early 2017.

Last December, Alexander penned a CNN op-ed that criticized the 400-day delay between the McDonald shooting and charges being filed against Van Dyke. By then the tide of public opinion had turned, and Chicago activists were staging holiday demonstrations along the Mag Mile. Yet the sight of a police chief condemning a counterpart turned heads. "Official evasion, deception and delay have made a terrible event corrosive and destructive," Alexander wrote. "When the news is bad, our leaders have a duty to deliver it."

Alexander suggested the ousted McCarthy wouldn't be the highest Chicago official to lose his job. "Can anyone believe it will end there?" he wrote. And he was right: the high-profile controversy undoubtedly contributed to Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez's big loss in the primary earlier this month. And now, somewhat ironically, Alexander could soon become a city employee, working high up in the very administration he was criticizing. But Alexander's candid op-ed—if treated as a cover letter—may suggest an outspoken, unconventional leadership style that could be what's needed to restore public trust in CPD. Doing so, Alexander wrote in his CPD application, requires perfect accountability "without any winks and nods."

"Dr. Alexander has an understanding of community problems and a sensitivity to those issues you don't often see," DeKalb commissioner Kathie Gannon recently told the AJC.

But attorney Mawuli Davis doubts whether truly meaningful reforms can ever come from a top cop with a traditional policing pedigree like Alexander's. "I can't say he's not the guy for the job," Davis says. "I don't know if a police officer who's been indoctrinated in [established policing systems] can really address the issues that persist across the country that have us outraged." He envisions an unconventional move not unlike Cook County's hiring of Nneka Jones Tapia—a clinical psychologist, not a career warden—to head one of the nation's largest jails.

"Anyone picked who isn't named Eugene Williams is going to be a problem," Georgia State University's Dabney says, speaking of the CPD Bureau of Support Services chief being considered for the job. "There will be fear of an outsider within the department."

Just before Christmas last year, Alexander was asked how DCPD could mend its strained relationship with the DeKalb community. "We've got to go back and look at our policies around police-involved shootings," he said. "We're also going to have to take a look at how we train. We also need to take a look at who it is we recruit as police officers." It was a familiar list, consisting of many things needed when Alexander started with DCPD. Three years into the job, he had a growing profile as one of the country's great minds on policing, and yet he had 10 percent fewer sworn officers than on his first day to carry out his ideas.

"I wish the things he said on television nationally would apply to his local work," Rise Up Georgia's Stamp says. "So do I think he'll turn Chicago's police around based on what he's done in DeKalb County? No."

"You'll be hard-pressed to find a more difficult job," Dabney says of the Chicago police superintendent post, "not just because of the high-profile shootings, but because of Rahm Emanuel, who isn't easy to work for by all accounts, and he's under pressure to fix things yesterday."

The requirements for the city's next top cop, it would seem, are various: the necessary experience to excite City Hall, a relatively unblemished record to curry favor with activists, and a strong-willed reform agenda to transform the force from the inside.

"Does Cedric Alexander have the capacity for the job? Yes," Dabney says. "Can he pull it off? That's anybody's guess." v

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment