Many people—in the media, in Congress and in the street—condemned all this as “classic” racism and xenophobia, an ugly echo of toxic cries once commonly hurled at Catholic, Jewish, Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and many other immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants. As a child of color growing up in the South, I sometimes heard “Go back to Africa” hurled at me and others. I never expected a sitting American president to echo it. Despite knee-jerk protestations from most of the GOP, it is inarguably right to call Trump’s echo racist. No one should need me to tell them that.
Today’s American communities are diverse, as are the families within those communities. The police are of these communities. Like the modern American military, today’s police forces reflect the diversity of our communities and our families. If you tell recent immigrants or the sons and daughters of recent immigrants to go back, if you tell people of color to go back, if you tell Muslims to go back, a great many of the people you are wounding with your divisive words are American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and law enforcement officers. Every one of them has sworn to serve and protect, even at the cost of their own lives. And you are telling some of them—you don’t even know who—to leave.
No one, especially an elected public servant, should need me to tell them this. But I have given 40 years to law enforcement, from deputy sheriff to police chief and director of public safety, and I do ask you to let me to tell you something else.
According to these EEOC regulations, our president’s comments — if they were coming from anyone else in any other workplace in America — would likely be unlawful. But he has also done far worse. He has not merely violated the law’s spirit but denied it, abandoned it, renounced it, and, worst of all, failed even to understand it.
“Go back to where you came from” is historically the slur of a bigot, especially given that Trump’s four targets are all US citizens, three by birth, one by naturalization. But telling any American, let alone duly elected members of Congress, that they should leave the country because they have criticized some aspect of it—that is the slur of a profoundly ignorant bigot. It reveals total ignorance and incomprehension of the Constitution and the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and, in particular, the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In other words, we Americans have the absolute right to criticize our government. I would argue that, if we truly love our country, we have the affirmative responsibility to criticize it when necessary. Without question, elected members of our government (in contrast, for example, to Putin’s government) have a duty never to slavishly uphold the status quo but to responsibly question and criticize it. After all, the Preamble to the Constitution makes no claim to having formed a perfect Union but speaks of working toward “a more perfect Union.” That work does not end.
By “othering” people who do not share his myopic tunnel vision of America, by telling them that they do not belong, President Trump is dividing our house against itself. I know from long experience that policing is most effective when the officers feel connected to the community and the community feels connected to them. The best police leaders work every day to make “a more perfect Union” between police and community. They strive to instill in their officers a reverence for constitutional rights and an empathy for their fellow beings. They want bold, courageous officers, not authoritarian tough guys who see themselves as members of an army occupying hostile territory. Creating community-oriented police departments is hard work, and the last thing beat cops and their commanders need is for the nation’s “chief magistrate” to make it infinitely harder.
When I was a police chief in Rochester, New York, and a director of public safety in DeKalb County in metro Atlanta, and when I had the high honor of serving on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, I understood that, whatever specific duties were outlined in my job description, I was expected to be above all else a leader. I was expected to articulate standards of behavior and performance consistent with my conservative interpretation of my constitutional oath as a law enforcement officer. I was also expected to demonstrate these standards in everything I myself said and did. That was the job I had sworn to do. It wasn’t always easy. But it was always clear.
Democracy demands leadership. Every police officer—city cop, county deputy, federal agent, FBI or ICE—needs the leadership direction and example of their commanders, including the “chief magistrate” of the United States. Democracy demands law and order. The faithful execution of law and order demands unbiased, thoroughly informed, completely comprehending, totally committed and deeply empathetic leadership.
Go back, Mr. President, go back to the Constitution. Read it—or have it read aloud to you. Study Article II especially hard. Come back only when you finally comprehend it, are able to embrace it, and are willing to lead according to it. We need that from you. We need this from you, the chief magistrate, the top law enforcement executive in the nation. Unless you, Mr. President, in perfect harmony with the Constitution and the laws that flow from it, set an example of faithfully executing the laws without dividing the nation or alienating any of its racially and ethnically diverse communities, law enforcement will become an all but impossible enterprise in America. You have an opportunity and an obligation to support the police by both living and delivering the message that police and public form one nation, indivisible under law.