Cedric Alexander traveled to Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 to help quell racial tensions after the police killed a Black man. He testified months later before senators in Washington, D.C., about improving relationships between law enforcement and communities of color.
Then crisis hit home.
Kevin Davis, a Black man, called 911 in DeKalb County, Ga., to report someone had stabbed his girlfriend in his apartment and left. Soon after, Davis heard gunshots. He came out with a revolver, fearing the assailant had returned. His dog had been killed.
An officer said Davis refused to drop the gun, though he was not pointing it at police. The officer shot Davis and he was charged with aggravated assault. Davis was handcuffed to a hospital bed for two days leading up to his death on New Year's Eve.
What Alexander did next as DeKalb County's public safety director — and how he handled other cases throughout his career — shows how he might tackle perhaps the highest-profile job in American policing today: transforming a Minneapolis Police Department that became associated around the world with brutality and racism in 2020 after a bystander filmed an officer kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed, unarmed Black man named George Floyd until he died.
Soon after Davis' shooting, Alexander faced demands from activists and Davis' family to have the Georgia Bureau of Investigation independently probe the shooting instead of his own department. That had never been done, said the Davis family attorney, Mawuli Davis.
"Those early meetings at times were intense and stressful," Mawuli Davis recalled. "But he ultimately did what the community had asked."
If the Minneapolis City Council confirms his nomination by Mayor Jacob Frey to lead a newly organized public safety department, Alexander, 67, will inherit daunting problems. Violent crime is at its highest level in a generation. The city is negotiating a monitoring program with state officials, who found MPD engaged in racial discrimination. It faces a court hearing to explain why it's not meeting minimum staffing requirements after hundreds of officers left following Floyd's murder. Community groups continue to call for accountability after Minneapolis police fatally shot three people — one this month — since Floyd's murder.
"I told him his skillset is perfectly suited — 'Go to Minneapolis, based on the history and the murder of George Floyd. Build an agency and, more importantly, build bridges,' " said Michael Thurmond, the chief executive officer of DeKalb County. "That one case changed the world, so all of us are invested in what happens in Minneapolis."
Busy challenge ahead
The last time Alexander was sworn in as police chief was in DeKalb County in 2013, shortly before Black Lives Matter gained national prominence questioning police tactics. He became public safety director the following year, while also serving as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
His decision to hand off the Davis case to the GBI impressed Vernon Keenan, the Georgia agency's leader. He said Alexander was the first in metro Atlanta to do so.
A month later, in March 2015, Alexander's department made national news when a DeKalb County officer fatally shot a naked, unarmed Black veteran named Anthony Hill who was suffering a mental health crisis. This time, the case was immediately given to the GBI, now standard practice in Georgia (the officer is serving a 20-year sentence). Alexander started requiring 40 hours of mental health training for all officers, and Thurmond credits Alexander with laying the groundwork for many of the county's mental health programs.
That April, Alexander went to Baltimore amid riots over the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in police custody. The following month, President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing — on which Alexander served — released a 116-page report calling for more use of body cameras, community policing and mental health training.
That September, cops responding to a possible burglary went to a residence, killed the family dog and shot the homeowner and a fellow officer. Fellow law enforcement officials say the first words Alexander spoke at a news conference discussing the shooting were some version of: We went to the wrong house.
"This was something that wasn't done," said Keenan, who later added the footage to training materials outlining how to respond to controversial incidents. "He stepped out front and said, 'This is a bad incident here.'"
Protestors came to a meeting of DeKalb County commissioners that September; a few called for Alexander to resign. Resident John Stalcup wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying, "Alexander, I know we are not perfect, but for God's sake, who is training these officers? ... Instead of citizens seeing you on TV in Ferguson, Baltimore or New York, it might be good to stay in DeKalb and stop some of this runaway crime."
Aurielle Marie Lucier was one of about 15 protestors who spent weeks outside the courthouse following the Davis killing, and felt Alexander's public statements for better policing were at odds with what she experienced as an organizer.
"He has worked out how to package rhetoric really well," said Lucier. She added that she didn't know "if the track record backs that up in the cities where he's worked." He set his sight on larger roles, she said, "even while a Dumpster fire was burning on his home turf."
His star kept rising: Alexander was a finalist to lead the Chicago Police Department in 2016 even after criticizing the agency in a CNN op-ed for stonewalling the release of damning footage of an officer killing Laquan McDonald.
Alexander said his public appearances helped rebuild trust in the community, which helped the police department close cases. Thurmond recalled Alexander as dedicated and accessible, saying, "When you're good at what you do, people will seek you out and ask your opinion."
While he still expects to occasionally lend a voice in national forums, Alexander said those appearances will become infrequent if he takes the Minneapolis job: "I'll be busy enough doing what I'm doing there."
A focus on mental health
Alexander spent the first decades of his law enforcement career in his home state of Florida, where he served as a deputy sheriff and then as an officer for the Miami-Dade Police Department. He earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and was a faculty member at the University of Rochester Medical Center in upstate New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Alexander joined the city's police department as deputy chief in 2002. The department was the first in New York to offer a response unit for mentally distressed people, according to news reports. Alexander said they provided 40 to 80 hours of intense mental health training to officers and worked to dispatch them on mental health calls.
His swearing in as the first Black police chief in 2005 — an interim appointment by the city's first Black mayor — was praised as historic.
Months later, an officer shot a 13-year-old Black girl whose family called 911 after she locked herself in the bathroom with a knife. Alexander acknowledged no one from the program was available to respond because they were on other calls, but said when those officers were present, negative interactions with mentally distressed people dropped "virtually to zero."
Alexander left the RPD in 2006 to become deputy commissioner for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, before taking jobs in Texas and Georgia. He returned to Rochester in 2017, this time as deputy mayor.
Some groups in Rochester described Alexander as a formidable ally who understood the importance of connecting violence prevention organizations.
"He did listen, and came to us," said Wanda Ridgeway, executive director for Rise Up Rochester, a nonprofit seeking to ease interactions between officers and crime victims.
Rochester faces a class-action lawsuit accusing the police department of a long pattern of racism and excessive force. Some plaintiffs allege police abuse during protests in 2020 over the RPD's killing of Daniel Prude, a mentally ill, naked and unarmed Black man. The class action period spans 2018 to 2021; the suit names, among others, Alexander's old boss, former Mayor Lovely Warren.
Alexander said mental health programs he started in Rochester were "slowly diluted" by those who took office after his term as police chief ended, and when he returned as deputy mayor, police fell outside his purview. Warren said police reported directly to her.
After leaving the post in 2019, Alexander worked as a consultant and national TV commentator who often spoke up following high-profile police killings — including those of Floyd and Prude — and called for more training and transparency.
When there is a crisis in Minneapolis, Alexander said residents should expect to hear from him and the heads of any responding agencies. Frey said he received helpful advice from Alexander over the phone in the days after police killed Andrew Tekle Sundberg following an armed standoff.
It's the council, not Frey, that Alexander now needs to convince. Some council members want to learn about his experiences outside of law enforcement, saying they believe that's crucial to a holistic approach to safety.
They could take a final vote as soon as Aug. 4.