Terrence M. Cunningham, the chief of police in Wellesley, Mass, and the president of America’s largest police management organization, announced a formal apology to the nation’s minority population this week.
Cunningham delivered his remarks at the convention in San Diego of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, whose membership includes 23,000 police officials in the United States. He said in part:
There have been times when law enforcement officers, because of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments, have been the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens. In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans.
While this is no longer the case, this dark side of our shared history has created a multi-generational—almost inherited—mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies. Many officers who do not share this common heritage often struggle to comprehend the reasons behind this historic mistrust. As a result, they are often unable to bridge this gap and connect with some segments of their communities.
While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future. We must move forward together to build a shared understanding. We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities. For our part, the first step in this process 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.
At the same time, those who denounce the police must also acknowledge that today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past. If either side in this debate fails to acknowledge these fundamental truths, we will be unlikely to move past them. Overcoming this historic mistrust requires that we must move forward together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. All members of our society must realize that we have a mutual obligation to work together to ensure fairness, dignity, security, and justice.
It is my hope that, by working together, we can break this historic cycle of mistrust and build a better and safer future for us all.
It would not have been helpful or diplomatic, but the unspoken conclusion of the speech is “Your move.” The speech is obviously intended to lessen tensions and distrust that endanger the lives of both police officers and citizens, and that threatens to undermine effective law enforcement in black communities that desperately need it. Last month, a tipping point may have been reached when the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that it may be reasonable for blacks to run from police, and therefore should not create a presumption of wrongdoing. Something had to break what increasingly looking like a death-spiral of racial trust on the streets, and it was appropriate for the initial olive branch to be extended by the police.
For anything to progress, however, there must be a return apology in kind. Someone with authority and legitimacy within the black community—not Al Sharpton, Colin Kaepernick, Kanye West or Michael Brown’s mother—now has to make a consonant statement. That statement must acknowledge the responsibility of the black community in producing so many criminals and individuals contemptuous of law and authority. It must acknowledge that the past conduct—as long as the police have adopted the comforting mythology that this is all in the past, the return apology can do so as well—of many blacks gave placed police officers in legitimate and justified fear for their lives, and, as a result, have generated biases that have often proven deadly. It should acknowledge that just as it is unfair for police to judge a community and a race by its worst actors, African-Americans have too often regarded all police officers as indistinguishable from the worst among their ranks, and have engaged in hateful and incendiary rhetoric. The statement should also admit that just as it is wrong for police to presume that a citizen is a potential criminal because of his color, it is wrong to assume that every officer in blue is motivated by racism, even if the officer shoots an unarmed black man.
Finally, that spokesperson should flap his arms, soar to the sky, and return to earth with two white doves in his hands as he or she sings “Give Peace a Chance.” This part of the statement is approximately as likely as what I just described.
For this is not how radical activists think, and the anti-police movement is thoroughly radicalized. Such a confession of accountability for past wrongs is taken as demonstration of weakness as well as sly maneuver to duck responsibility rather than accept it. There will be no willingness on the part of black organizations to apologize for anything, or accept any level of accountability for the problem. Anything short of an unequivocal admission that police remain part of a systemic effort by white Americans to oppress blacks will be deemed inadequate. Various black leaders have already pronounced Cunningham’s speech as inadequate. It is certainly not perfect, but if there was ever an example of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good, this is it.
To open a dialogue, the other side has to take a risk consistent with the risk Cunningham took, accepting that hard-liners in his own camp would condemn the effort ( William Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations:“Such appeasement of the violent anti-police movement is just one more nail in the coffin of American law enforcement.The people who support American police officers aren’t looking for an apology. And for the people who hate the police, it won’t make any difference.”) and that police adversaries would regard the acceptance of responsibility as just an inadequate first step toward total capitulation.
I wish it would happen. It should happen. I don’t see the problem being addressed until it does happen.
But Campaign Zero co-founder DeRay Mckesson responded predictably, saying that he looks forward to seeing the apology backed up by “deep, structural changes to policing and the criminal justice system”—in other words, “it’s not our move, it’s still yours.” Charlene Carruthers, national director for the Chicago-based BYP100, reacted by saying the apology was inadequate, and that the next step was to remove financial resources away from law enforcement and give them to community-based programs.
African-American groups, communities and leaders will not apologize or accept any responsibility for the distrust between blacks and police. Until that changes, nothing else will.
Nice try, though, Chief.