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, his book “In Defense of Public Service: How 22 Million Government Workers Will Save Our Republic” will be published in January 2020. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On Friday, a second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force who was training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, killed three people on the base and wounded at least eight others, according to the US Department of Defense. The suspect was killed in the gunfire exchanged with two Escambia County sheriff’s deputies, who were both injured as a result.
It’s terrible news, which comes just two days after Wednesday’s shooting at another navy base in Hawaii. I grew up in Pensacola, and recently returned to my hometown after a forty-year career in law enforcement, which began when I was a deputy sheriff in Tallahassee, Florida. Despite this tragedy, the community has responded in a way that fills me with hope.
The news is still raw, and there is a lot we don’t yet know.
But I know this much: “These acts are crimes against all of us.”
That is what Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly said in a public statement on Friday, and I can tell you that a version of this sentence was in the hearts and minds of all the bold, courageous, and selfless members of law enforcement who ran toward the gunfire at NAS Pensacola. I know this to be true because after 40 years serving with and leading law enforcement officers, I know what drives and motivates them.
And I know that same sentiment was also in the hearts and minds of the active duty and civilian personnel at NAS Pensacola who rushed to help. I know also that my neighbors and the people of Pensacola, agree.
This deeply held belief is what gives me hope on this otherwise dark day. Law enforcement — both local and military — showed themselves to be of one heart and mind. There were no public disputes over jurisdiction, no deal making, and no transactions. A crime was being committed against the community that belonged to them all. In the face of grave danger, that community simply acted as one.
Such is the founding principle of policing in the United States of America, and policing in a great modern democracy. A list of policing principles often attributed to Sir Robert Peel, who was pivotal in establishing London’s Metropolitan Police Department, states, “The police are the public and the public are the police.” They are neither more nor less than “members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
I have often repeated this quotation from the father of modern policing to police leaders and politicians here in the US. Often, they reply that those words describe police-community relations as they should be, or could be — “in a perfect world.”
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Every day, we are confronted with evidence that our world is very far from perfect. Yet on Friday, December 6, in my hometown of Pensacola, on the grounds of the Naval Air Station of which we are so proud, this imperfect world witnessed that perfect relationship between police and community. The world saw a commonwealth of citizens who were indivisible, and amid the chaos and tragedy, the police were the public and the public were the police.