U.S. police chiefs group apologizes for 'historical mistreatment' of minorities

The president of America's largest police organization issued a formal apology Monday to the nation's minority population "for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society's historical mistreatment of communities...

Terrence M. Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the Wellesley, Mass., police. On Monday he offered an apology for historic mistreatment of minorities by police. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of IACP.

The president of America's largest police organization issued a formal apology Monday to the nation's minority population "for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society's historical mistreatment of communities of color."

Terrence M. Cunningham, the chief of police in Wellesley, Mass., 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. The statement was issued on behalf of the IACP and comes as police executives continue to grapple with tense relationships between officers and minority groups in the wake of high-profile civilian deaths in New York, South Carolina, Minnesota and elsewhere, the sometimes violent citizen protests that have ensued, and the ambush killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Top police chiefs have long recognized the need to maintain good relations with their communities, of all races, and not allow an us-vs.-them mentality to take root, either among rank-and-file officers or in the neighborhoods they police. Cunningham's comments are an acknowledgement of police departments' past role in exacerbating tensions and a way to move forward and improve community relations nationwide.

"Events over the past several years," Cunningham said, "have caused many to question the actions of our officers and has tragically undermined the trust that the public must and should have in their police departments. . . . The history of the law enforcement profession is replete with examples of bravery, self-sacrifice and service to the community. At its core, policing is a noble profession."

But Cunningham added, "At the same time, it is also clear that the history of policing has also had darker periods." He cited laws enacted by state and federal governments that "have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks. . . . While this is no longer the case, this dark side of our shared history has created a multigenerational - almost inherited - mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies."


Cunningham continued, "While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future. . . . 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."

He concluded, "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."

Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, applauded Cunningham's statement.

"It seems to me that this is a very significant admission," Robinson said, "and a very significant acknowledgement of what much of America has known for some time about the historical relationship between police and communities of color. The fact someone high in the law enforcement community has said this is significant, and I applaud it because it is long overdue. And I think it's a necessary first step to them trying to change these relationships."

After his comments, Cunningham told The Washington Post in an e-mail that "we have 16,000 police chiefs and law enforcement officials gathered here in San Diego and it is an important message to spread. Communities and law enforcement need to begin a healing process and this is a bridge to begin that dialogue. If we are brave enough to collectively deliver this message, we will build a better and safer future for our communities and our law enforcement officers. Too many lives have been lost already, and this must end. It is my hope that many other law enforcement executives will deliver this same message to their local communities, particularly those segments of their communities that lack trust and feel disenfranchised."

The IACP members present for Cunningham's speech gave him a standing ovation, IACP spokeswoman Sarah Guy said. Cunningham made the remarks on behalf of the membership, Guy said.

Cunningham's comments came a day after FBI Director James B. Comey said that Americans "actually have no idea whether the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police" has gone up or down, or whether any group is more likely to be shot by police, given the incomplete data available. Also speaking to the IACP convention, Comey praised police officers for serving during "a uniquely difficult time" and said the narrative that police are overusing force, based on isolated incidents, may be exaggerated. The Justice Department has never collected comprehensive data on police shootings or use of force, although last week it announced a plan to do so.

However, in 2015 Comey gave a speech at Georgetown University on law enforcement and race. His points were similar to Cunningham's. "First," Comey said, "all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups."


Comey also noted: "We - especially those of us who enjoy the privilege that comes with being the majority - must confront the biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition. We must speak the truth about our shortcomings as law enforcement, and fight to be better. But as a country, we must also speak the truth to ourselves. Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods. Police officers - people of enormous courage and integrity, in the main - are in those neighborhoods, risking their lives, to protect folks from offenders who are the product of problems that will not be solved by body cameras. We simply must speak to each other honestly about all these hard truths."


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