The head of one of the largest police organizations in the US offered a formal apology to minority communities for the first time on Monday, acknowledging the role that law enforcement has played in "society's historical mistreatment" of people of color.
International Association of Chiefs of Police president Terrence Cunningham spoke of the importance of recognizing past injustices at the group's annual conference in San Diego, Calif., noting that "this dark side of our shared history has created a multigenerational, almost inherited, mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies."
The speech drew criticism from some members of law enforcement, who voiced concerns that highlighting the role of police in the historical oppression of minorities would create more animosity toward officers at a time when highly publicized police shootings of black men have led to protests across the country and a decline in Americans' trust in law enforcement. But others applauded the acknowledgement as a significant step toward bridging the divide between police and the communities they serve.
"There is a very strong and growing recognition among police leadership that it has to recognize the history of the institution, that there is a tremendous amount of damage that the institution has done historically, particularly with regard to black Americans and other minorities," says David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "That simply saying 'that was then and this is now' was never sufficient, but is now not just insufficient but intolerable, and that the way police do their work and engage in these communities has to change."
That growing recognition, he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview, began some time ago within the policing community and has gained momentum in recent years, fueled by a national conversation around policing and pressure from advocacy groups and movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Chief Cunningham is not the first leader in law enforcement to apologize for past injustices. In 2013, Montgomery, Ala., police chief Kevin Murphy offered an apology and his badge to former civil rights activist and now-congressman John Lewis for Montgomery police officers' failure to act during an attack on Freedom Riders in 1961.
Acknowledgement of historical wrongdoings has permeated the federal level of law enforcement as well: In 2014, FBI director James Comey added an exercise to the bureau's training program to address the "shameful" probe of Martin Luther King Jr. by former director J. Edgar Hoover.
But the apology from Cunningham "may be, up until now, the single highest profile such moment, and this one was spoken on behalf of the police profession," Mr. Kennedy says. "And that’s really a breakthrough."
Not all considered Cunningham's speech a positive step forward, however. The apology was criticized by some members of law enforcement who argued that bringing up past wrongdoings would add fuel to the fire of racial tension in the United States, despite Cunningham's emphasis that "those who denounce the police must also acknowledge that today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past."
"Our profession is under attack right now and what we don’t need is chiefs like him perpetuating that we are all bad guys in law enforcement," Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, told the Associated Press. "I think it's an asinine statement.... We've got officers dying on almost a daily basis now because of this environment, and statements like that don’t help."
Others, such as Ferguson, Mo., police chief Delrish Moss, praised the apology as a necessary step to rebuilding trust.
"There are communities that have long perceived us as oppressors, there are communities that have long perceived us as the jackbooted arm of government designed to keep people under control, and that’s one of the things we have to work hard to get past," Chief Moss told the AP. "I’m glad it’s being addressed [by the IACP] because the only way to get past it is to first acknowledge the existence of it."
While the apology was welcomed by leaders of police reform advocacy groups, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, it was also met with a hesitation to assume that the words would translate into real change unless further steps are taken.
"[I]f the apology was meaningful, then it'd be followed up with talks around reparations, restoration, and restitution," Kofi Ademola, a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter Chicago, tells the Monitor. "Other than that it's just empty rhetoric."
Kennedy, of the National Network for Safe Communities, acknowledges that it is unlikely that the apology will have an immediate effect on the way that officers police minority communities. Still, he says, the recognition of historical mistreatment at such a high level marks "tremendous progress."
"Will this make a big difference right away in the way police are behaving on the streets? Probably not directly," he says. "But in order for policing to change, police leadership and police institutions and police culture have to change."
A widespread transformation in police culture and practices, he adds, "cannot be produced in a moment by a statement. But the statement really represents a profound shift in police leadership, and ... over time and with a lot of work, I think we can be optimistic about the changes that it will produce."