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Head of police chiefs association apologizes for history of racial abuse

The head of one of the largest police organizations in the country on Monday offered a formal apology for what he said was the “historical mistreatment of communities of color.”

Terrence M. Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the history of policing has had dark periods, including times when law enforcement officers “have been the face of oppression for too many of our fellow citizens.”

While Cunningham argued this is no longer the case and that policing is still a noble profession, he said officers in the past have been required by law to carry out “unpalatable tasks,” including ensuring legalized discrimination and denying citizens their basic rights.

That dark past has created a multi-generational distrust, and it will take efforts on both sides to bridge the gap between police and the communities they are assigned to protect, Cunningham said:

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.

You can listen to Cunningham’s full statement in the video at the top of this page.

The response has been mixed, as the Associated Press reports:

The reaction from leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement was mixed, saying words needed to be backed by actions, while the head of an officers’ union in Minnesota said there was no need to apologize.

Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, thought Cunningham’s statement went too far. In his city, two white officers fatally shot a black man last November.

“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,” Kroll said. “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.”

Take Two hosted a roundtable discussion to hear the different perspectives on Cunningham’s speech. Guests:

Highlights

This organization, the IACP, has been around for more than a century and they hold a conference each year bringing together law enforcement from every level. What do you make of the fact that the president, Terrence Cunningham, chooses to issue a formal apology during his four-minute speech? 

Dolores Jones-Brown: I think that is an attempt to give some credence to the feeling that folks in the African American and broader people of color community are feeling, but the apology — to my tastes — falls short, particularly when the president said that it's no longer the case that discriminatory policing takes place. 

Just last week, San Francisco's police department was cited by the Department of Justice for violence against minorities, and they recommended 272 reforms. Part of the evidence against them was racist emails between members of the police department, so the notion that there is no modern day impact from the racialized history of policing is disingenuous. 

Melina Abdullah, I'm curious what you're hearing from people responding to these remarks.

I just echo what Professor Jones just lifted up. 'In the past' and 'this is no longer the case' are the two most problematic pieces of what he said. 

Of course, we want the apology for what's happened in the past, but more important than an apology is a change in behavior and a change in the way policing works.

We do want an acknowledgment of the history of policing. That it comes from a history of slave-catching that was meant to target and oppress especially black people.

Brian Moriguchi, I know for many officers, Cunningham's remarks seemed off-base in a completely different direction. How did you hear them?

There is a strong push by those in the civil rights community to try and spin the narrative that law enforcement today is similar to the law enforcement 50 years ago, and that's not true. 

Comments like 'slave catching' — your previous guest mentioned — police are not out there slave-catching. That is to inspire a racial divide and anger amongst people and police officers. I don't think that's appropriate at all. 

In his message, it's important to note, police work today is much better than 50 years ago. That doesn't mean that we don't have problems and that there aren't racist cops out there — we do. And we need to work together to weed those people out. 

More highlights from the conversation:

Press the blue play button above to hear the discussion in its entirety. 

(Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.)