More and more, push for police reform starts with the chief

A speech by the president of America’s largest police organization shows chiefs' changing attitudes toward the grievances of the black community.

Elliot Spagat/AP
Terrence Cunningham, president of one of the largest police organizations in the US, apologized on Oct. 17, 2016, for historical mistreatment of minorities, calling it a "dark side of our shared history" that must be acknowledged and overcome.

More and more, many within the top brass of American policing are doing what was once unthinkable: acknowledging that their departments have created many of the deep rifts that now beset minority communities and the men and women who police them.

On Monday, the president of America’s largest police organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, pointed to the “darker periods” within the history of American law enforcement during a convention address in San Diego. Chief Terrence Cunningham told the audience 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.”

But Mr. Cunningham, also chief of police in Wellesley, Mass., a white, wealthy suburb of Boston, received a standing ovation for going even further.

“While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future,” he said. “For our part, the first step is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”

The apology infuriated many of the rank-and-file across the country, and some Black Lives Matter activists reacted with skepticism. But a number of criminal justice scholars saw the police chief’s address as part of the beginning of a new kind of effort – an effort rooted in the subtleties of human emotion and personal relationships, and a necessary part of healing the nation’s historical wounds.

“This is really groundbreaking,” says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia and a former Maryland police officer. “It’s a paradigm shift, and what needs to happen is happening – the shift is coming from the top.”

“We can’t address a problem unless we identify the problem,” Professor Burke adds. “And I think what they’re doing now – you know what, let’s call it what it is: We have a problem now, we’ve had problems in the past, and we’re apologizing for our role in creating the problem.”

Changes from the top

There have been signs that other top officials and local police chiefs have been turning more attention to the issue – and as more than lip-service.

Last week, newly installed New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill touted the fact that the city had just experienced the safest September in more than 20 years, with total crime down 12 percent from last year.  

“But while the NYPD achieved what many said was unachievable – making New York the safest big city in America – we have to acknowledge that we did so sometimes at the expense of vital support of some of the communities we swore to protect,” Mr. O’Neill told the Association for a Better New York last Tuesday. “We did so sometimes in ways that inflamed old wounds, especially among people of color. And those wounds run very deep.”

Earlier, former High Point, N.C., Police Chief James Fealey told a police-reform advocacy group that he needed to acknowledge there was “a long history of baggage between the police and the minority community,” and that a lot of what they were doing to address this wasn’t working.

“I'll say, ‘I realize we have let you down, and I apologize for that,’ ” Chief Fealey told the National Network for Safe Communities his meetings with members of minority communities. "I'll start to see some heads nodding in agreement. I'll say, ‘Give us one more chance. Let's work together.’ This difficult speech has gone well every time.”

Concerns among the rank-and-file

For many rank-and-file police officers who cannot speak on the record, this kind of talk leads to discouragement and anger. After all, there is lots of tension on the streets of the minority neighborhoods they police. They hold up the names of police officers assassinated in New York; Dallas; and Baton Rouge, La., during the past year and beyond.

“Such appeasement of the violent anti-police movement is just one more nail in the coffin of American law enforcement,” said Bill Johnson, executive director the National Association of Police Organizations, in a statement criticizing Mr. Cunningham’s address at the IACP convention.  

“The people who support American police officers aren't looking for an apology,” Mr. Johnson said. “And for the people who hate the police, it won't make any difference."

The answer, he said, is not collective guilt, but individual responsibility. 

Those frustrations are important. Without the cooperation of the rank-and-file, the tensions on the street are bound to remain, observers say.

“The police chiefs can say what they want, which is a great sign, because they’re the ones working on setting policies,” says Burke. “But the change is not going to happen just by the words of a few police chiefs. It’s got to trickle down to the officers on the streets, and they have to buy in to this notion for things to really begin to change.”

“It’s not going to be a one-step-fits-all solution,” he continues.

Just as body cameras and community policing techniques are helpful but not sufficient, acknowledging that there has been a problem and offering an apology to mend the relationship just a step – though an important one, Burke says.

A number of police chiefs agreed on Monday.

“I was one of the first ones to stand up” for the ovation given to Cunningham, said Perry Tarrant, assistant chief of the Seattle police and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, to The Washington Post. “I think there was high value in the apology, coming from the president of the IACP, that will bring folks that were reticent to come to the table for a conversation, to now consider doing so.”

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