Seize this chance

Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid’s late-night run-in with a cop provides a clear opportunity for honest, two-way pursuit toward improving strained police-community relations that have bedeviled the U.S.

Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid’s harrowing, dead-of-night run-in with an undercover Cobb cop should not be smothered under fleeting, condescending nods of sympathy followed only by a rapid return to business as usual.

Atlanta’s legacy and future deserve far better. We’ve seen it before. It took courage, vision and leadership for a white business and political community to begin frank conversations with a rising African-American community half a century ago. This metro – and nation – benefited as a result.

The discord now over troubled police-community relations in Cobb provides an opportunity to brush off old skills and apply them to an equality pressing, volatile problem.

Cupid’s experience would make for compelling reality TV. Black woman leaves a hotel after midnight and drives toward home. A jalopy with a defective headlight and decorations sometimes favored by the criminal element roars up behind her, with no driver visible behind a dark windshield. The vehicle follows – much too closely for Cupid’s comfort — then abruptly backs off.

Shaken, the married mother of two young boys with biblical names calls 911 from a nearby business. Uniformed cops eventually arrive to advise that the pursuer was, in fact, a Cobb detective, on assignment to watch out for car break-ins. The plainclothes cop quickly broke off the hunt upon learning that his quarry was, in fact, a Cobb elected official.

Commissioner Cupid – a Georgia Tech engineering graduate – was profoundly frightened by the interaction. No kidding. The cop’s behavior, however well-intentioned, mimicked that practiced by carjackers and other criminal predators.

More importantly, what would have happened had the woman pursued been instead a low-wage hotel employee and not a government insider?

We will never know. But we do know that unarmed people have died lately in questionable interactions with police resulting from stops on suspicion of infractions barely punishable by a wrist slap.

And we know also that vastly differing perceptions of police intent and purpose too often equate to polar-opposite realities, even when law-abiding citizens stand on one side of the gap.

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee has so far made no public attempt to build a bridge between these alternate universes. Instead, he walked the classic path of quickly offering a clipped, tepid apology, immediately followed by an assertion of “nothing to see here, folks.” No wrong was committed and we support our local police.

Lee made those points in an op-ed sent to media outlets. Reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dan Klepal found that several passages were directly lifted without attribution from a letter printed in a Kentucky newspaper. An attributed version is on this page.

Lee’s thinking is instructive here. He wrote that, “Contrary to what has been written and said during the past few weeks, we do not have a police force out of control or fraught with misconduct.”

So where does that leave an ambitious woman, studying late into the night for a law license, who has a terrifying encounter with a cop in an unmarked car? That is the question. Answering it demands leadership; not the tamp-down that is modern crisis management.

Lee should take a lesson from Atlanta’s great leaders of old and somehow summon an open-minded desire to create a better, more-unified community. He should then spare no effort in working with anyone of goodwill, including fellow commissioner Cupid, to make that happen.

Cobb, its police, the public they serve – and even this nation – could gain as a result. For Cupid’s experience offers an uncommon prism through which well-meaning people just might see the true state of police-community relations in a clearer way. That opportunity should not be wasted.

Unlike others who’ve died in questionable interactions with cops, Cupid isn’t a small-time criminal or a black male whom a cop can characterize as looking like “Hulk Hogan” to justify pulling a trigger multiple times. Cupid cannot honestly be dismissed as a threatening “thug” worthy of fatal injury. When elected leaders like her who’ve committed no crime find themselves in fear of police conduct, it should be clear that our society’s strayed too far from Sir Robert Peel’s 19th-century principles of ethical policing. They compelled officers “to recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil (sic) their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.”

If that high standard is not maintained, then we are all complicit in making our law officers’ already-risky work even more perilous and less effective for our communities.

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Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.