Which side are you on? The question every police officer must answer.

(Washington Post illustration)

Cedric L. Alexander served as a member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and is former director of public safety for DeKalb County, Ga.

In January, The Post reported that several U.S. Capitol Police officers were suspended and more than a dozen were under investigation over actions related to the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6. A week later, CNN and other media put the number of suspensions at six, with 29 other Capitol officers under investigation for “alleged roles in riot.”

In February, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Los Angeles Police Department launched an internal investigation of allegations that its officers used social media to circulate a mock Valentine’s Day card with a photo of George Floyd captioned, “You take my breath away.” Floyd, of course, died last May, after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for some eight minutes during an arrest. Floyd repeatedly pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”

Superficially, these are very different events. But for policing in America, the core issue in both is the same.

Sworn officers are beholden to no official, not even the president of the United States, for their authority. Legally, it flows from law founded on the Constitution. But police need more than legal authority. They need legitimacy, and legitimacy is conferred exclusively by the public they serve. Legitimacy endures only as long as the police act truthfu

lly, transparently and justly. Lose legitimacy, and police authority shrivels into impotence.

Legitimate policing is professional, serving the public effectively and continually seeking improvement. It is accountable and transparent. It is self-monitoring, looking out into the community as well as inward, and self-reviewing, learning lessons every day and with each interaction. Enlightened values and the leadership and training to go with them are necessary to police legitimacy, but they are not sufficient.

Legitimacy begins with the personnel our police agencies recruit. Most law enforcement organizations in the United States make hiring decisions based on such things as a clean criminal record, citizenship or naturalization documentation, possession of a driver’s license and a high school diploma or GED, performance on tests assessing cognitive skills and personality, adequate physical fitness, and the successful completion of training.

These are all important, but they leave out an essential element. Call it, if you will, heart.

By heart, I mean a deep empathy that prompts you to act — in the moment and righteously. In some four decades of work in law enforcement, I have seen heart work the miracles of service and valor police officers perform daily. I have also seen deficiency, corruption or absence of heart create the kind of tragedy and failure that killed Floyd and that marked much of what occurred at Capitol Hill on Jan. 6.

How can police recruiters know an applicant’s heart?

A project of the Editorial Board, in conversation with outside voices.

They can ask the right questions, questions that go to values. And they can evaluate the values footprint each applicant has produced. They can look at the candidate’s affiliations, the company he or she chooses to keep, and the commitments he or she chooses to make.

These days, just about all of us make one nearly indelible footprint. It is created online, often in social media — in tweets, posts and on forums of all kinds. The digital footprint we leave is often called our digital reputation, and prospective employers of all kinds use various online tools to examine it. Police agencies should, too.

Social media has played an important role in the investigation of the Capitol insurrection and is, of course, central to the investigation of the alleged Floyd “valentine.” The phenomenon of “online disinhibition,” the lack of restraint many people feel when they communicate online vs. in person, has been known to psychologists for years. It is no secret that people feel safer — less inhibited — saying or sharing things online than they would “in real life.” Indeed, many of us freely publish our hearts to the world.

All police departments investigate the criminal record of job applicants. Surely, they should also investigate their social media footprint as well. Informed consent for such an investigation should be a condition of employment. As Americans, we have a constitutional right to privacy, but there is no constitutional right to be hired as a police officer.

You Take My Breath Away” is the title of a Billboard Hot 100 song from 1979. Another song comes to my mind. Written by labor activist Florence Reece in 1931 and performed by many artists since, it is called “Which Side Are You On?” One way or another, this is a question anyone who wants a job in U.S. law enforcement should have to answer. And it is a question that should be answered before misplaced loyalty, corrupted values and divided fealty are revealed in obscene acts, whether committed online or in the very temple of American democracy.

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