40-Year Law Enforcement Vet Explains What Good Policing Should Look Like

By Cedric Alexander

Good policing

“In God we trust,” the great statistician W. Edwards Deming famously quipped. “All others must bring data.”

We have a quarter-century of data that shows a sharp decline in the U.S. crime rate between 1993 and 2018: down 51% by the FBI numbers and 71% according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By these numbers, we could claim that whatever policing looks like today is good policing.

But there are also other numbers.

Each year since 2015, American police have shot and killed about 1,000 people. Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, and, last year, 24% of all police killings were of black Americans – who make up about 13% of the U.S. population. A PBS NewsHour-NPR-Marist Poll conducted during June 2–3 of this year revealed that two-thirds of black Americans do not trust the police to treat them equally with whites. A 2019 study showed that 96 of 100,000 black American boys and men are killed by police, compared with a rate of 39 out of 100,000 for white boys and men.

Whatever this looks like, it is not good policing.

I can give you a consensus best-practices view of good policing in just four headings:

Professional: Good policing serves the public effectively and continually seeks out and adopts proven best practices.

Accountable: It holds its officers accountable in upholding state-of-art policies on, among other things, use of force. An independent citizen oversight agency is increasingly emerging as key to accountability, and good policing today also employs some form of an Early Intervention System (EIS). This personnel management tool identifies, at the earliest possible stage, potential individual or group concerns based on behavior and actions. After all, even the best policy is useless if it is evaded, ignored, or abused.

Transparent: Transparent police agencies open their books to the public, providing information on their policies and operations, publishing their policy manual online, explaining the department’s different units and what they do, and providing easy public access to officers in each unit.

Self-monitoring: Good policing looks out into the community, but it is also highly introspective. Regular self-monitoring, self-reviewing, lessons-learned procedures are in place and put into practice – especially after use of force incidents and shootings.  

To these headings, I would also add that good police departments judiciously integrate aspects of problem-oriented policing (POP) into their strategy. This requires being proactive and data-driven in identifying relevant crime and disorder problems and developing policies and strategies, including allocation of personnel, to address them.

All these principles, including POP, work best in close partnership with the community. Forty years in law enforcement convinces me of the enduring value of community policing. Every police leader and every rank-and-file police officer needs to understand that while police authority comes from the law, that authority is little more than theory unless the people of the community grant legitimacy to each and every officer in their midst. Such legitimacy is granted only as it is merited by the behavior, demonstrated attitude, and actions of the police.

If you ask me what good policing should look like today and must look like in the future, I would ask you to cast your imagination back to 1829 and the founding of the world’s first “modern” police force, London’s Metropolitan Police, by British Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel. In a single sentence, he defined the essence of effective policing in a free country: “The police are the public and the public are the police.”

This statement still applies, 191 years later, on the streets of America’s communities. Good policing is community policing. One for all and all for one. Peel gave his officers a distinctive uniform – one that made the policeman look nothing like a soldier. The last thing Peel wanted in London was a police force that might be mistaken for a military force of occupation.

What does good policing look like – literally, look like? Anything but an invasion.

The police are the public and the public are the police. This is a social equation, and like any other equation, it must balance. America’s current crisis, therefore, cannot be understood as a crisis of policing. It is a crisis of the American people, which, naturally, includes the police.

Good policing tactics, strategies, and policies are necessary to good policing. But they are not sufficient.

First, we must look beyond these necessities. The visible and vocal manifestations of the widespread public denial of police legitimacy were triggered by the actions of a few officers, by which I emphatically do not mean a few “bad apples.” What we need to understand is that the acts of any individual officer come not alone from his or her head, heart, or instinct. Each act is also the sum of that officer’s training and the informed embrace of values received through the culture of the agency in which that officer serves.

We must, then, look beyond tactics, strategies, and policies to departmental values and culture. But precisely because the police are the public and the public are the police, we must also look to the context in which each law enforcement agency develops its values and culture. They are products of wider American society, laws, and history.

Good policing looks like the acts of each police officer. Each act is, in some essential way, the result of our society, laws, and history. Many politicians vehemently object to the notion of “systemic racism” in policing or American society.

Well, objection overruled. Racism is manifestly endemic in the American system.

But systemic as well is our intense and enduring American aspiration toward what a slaveholding Thomas Jefferson described in the Declaration of Independence: a society in which all people are regarded as they were created – equal – all possessing the same unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The more that American policing succeeds in closing the gap between aspiration toward and realization of these systemic constituents of America, the more the nation’s policing will look like good policing.


Cedric L. Alexander Psy. D. is a law enforcement expert with over 40 years of experience in public safety. He has served as Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, and as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry. He has lectured on police stress and burnout and currently trains on topics of management and leadership related to 21st century policing. He is the author of The New Guardians: Policing in America’s Communities for the 21st Century and In Defense of Public Service: How 22 Million Government Workers Will Save Our Republic.

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