As the head of an influential black law enforcement association, DeKalb County’s top cop was among the first outside advisers contacted by police in Ferguson, Mo., following the unrest that accompanied the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old.
Now, even as he’s emerged as a leading national advocate of police reform, DeKalb Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander finds his own agency under scrutiny after two recent police-involved shootings.
“Everything we do, we have to be accountable for,” Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and a member of President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Task Force, said Monday.
Last week, for second time in a little more than two months, Alexander found himself answering questions about whether one of his officers was too quick to resort to deadly force. U.S. Air Force veteran Anthony Hill, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was fatally shot twice in the chest by a DeKalb officer responding to reports of a suspicious person. Witnesses said Hill was knocking on doors and crawling on the ground nude at his Chamblee apartment complex. The officer, Robert Olsen, said the suspect ignored his commands to stop.
In December, Kevin Davis was shot by an officer in the doorway of his Decatur apartment after calling 911 to report an assault on his girlfriend. Davis was armed, but by all accounts did not point his weapon at the officer.
Neither Hill nor Davis had a history of violent criminal offenses.
Typically, DeKalb police conduct in-house probes of officer-involved shootings. But, in a move Alexander said he hopes will foster greater trust, the public safety director has requested the GBI investigate the two incidents.
“In light of everything that’s going on in the country right now, you want to make sure you’re being as transparent as possible,” he said. “But it’s not an admission of anything.”
Initially, however, Alexander was resistant to involve the GBI, said activist Derrick Rice. The formal request for help came more than a month after Davis’ shooting and was made only after he was pressured by community leaders, he said.
“I think there are inconsistencies between the public Cedric Alexander and the one who is behind closed doors,” said Rice, pastor of Sankofa United Church of Christ.
Appearing before Congress last December, Alexander testified that America’s criminal justice system “needs to be explored and possibly revamped.”
“Now that’s a heavy lift,” he said. “We understand that, but what we have to do right now is engender in the rest of this country a sense of hope that we’re looking at this.”
Alexander declined to speak specifically about either of the recent shootings, citing the ongoing investigations. He initially defended the officers in press conferences following each incident, saying the officers responded as they did because they felt threatened.
Hill’s shooting, he acknowledged at the time, exposed the need for better training in dealing with the mentally ill. Mental health advocates say DeKalb has lagged behind other metro Atlanta agencies in such instruction.
“I’m going to be taking a look at in-service training that extends over an officer’s career to help enhance our ability to engage the mentally ill population,” Alexander said. “We see a large number of people we come in contact with who may be struggling with some sort of mental illness as well as chemical dependency.”
Race, he said, is not an issue. Olsen is white, and Hill was African-American. Davis was also black, as was the officer who shot him, Joseph Pitts.
“It’s not about race anymore,” Alexander, pointing out that the racial composition of DeKalb’s police force — nearly 50 percent African-American — is in line with the community it serves. “It’s about police and how they are engaging with the public.”
But questions about the appropriateness of officer’s response are at the heart of each case; Olsen was equipped with a Taser, for instance, but chose not to use it.
“Our officers can’t be so quick to fatally shoot,” said Christopher Chestnut, the attorney for the Hill family.
The threshold is high when it comes to alleged police misconduct, said retired FBI agent Fred G. Robinette III, often called on for expert testimony in court trial involving deadly force.
“A lot of people don’t understand that an officer can use such lethal force to protect himself from death and bodily harm,” Robinette said. “An officer can use his firearm in situations beyond when someone is shooting at you.”
He added that 90 percent of officers are killed by their own weapons.
“Every situation is different,” Robinette said.
Body cameras, according to Alexander, add much-needed clarity. He said Monday he expects DeKalb police will be equipped with them within a year.
“It gives us more information as to what occurred in these interactions (between police and the public),” he said. “When officers have body cameras, everyone acts differently.”
Rice said Alexander talks a good game, but whether he’ll back it up with action remains to be seen.
“He’s been presented as the gold standard when it comes to modern policing,” Rice said. “I have noticed that his stump speech has shifted slightly to where the narrative that was national has become more local.”
Alexander said he’s confident DeKalb police will retain the public’s trust.
“We have to be professional. We have to be above the fray. We just have to do what’s right by the law,” he said.
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