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Top police chief apologizes for “historical mistreatment” of racial minorities

He acknowledged that the police have been the “face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens.”

The head of the country’s largest police chief group has a clear message to racial minorities in the US: I’m sorry.

Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, issued the formal apology in front of thousands of police chiefs at the group’s annual meeting in San Diego, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Cunningham acknowledged the “historical mistreatment” of racial minorities, adding that police have been the “face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens.” He argued that police — even those who are not culpable for historical mistreatment — must address this “fundamental issue” to rebuild trust between their communities and law enforcement.

Cunningham began by acknowledging the sacrifice many police officers have made in the past, including the hundreds of cops who have given their lives in the line of duty.

He then said:

At the same time, however, it is also clear that the history of policing has had darker periods. 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 to 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 insuring 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 generational — almost inherited — mistrust between many communities of color and the law enforcement agencies that serve them. 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 also 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 the law enforcement profession 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.

Still, Cunningham stopped short of acknowledging some of the more current problems causing rifts between police and communities of color — such as the racial disparities in police use of force and mass incarceration. In fact, he said, “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.”

But the statement is a big deal nonetheless. Following the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests, experts have called on police leaders to issue formal apologies to communities of color.

As John Jay College criminologist David Kennedy previously told me, it’s a crucial first step for police to own up to and apologize for their historical mistreatment of black and brown Americans. Otherwise, much of the community-police distrust will always linger. Kennedy argued:

I don’t think we’re going to be able to build new relationships successfully between black communities and the police until the police say, “We recognize these facts — whether we were there or not, whether we were around during slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, attacks on the civil rights movement, or whether it’s more recent things that we have done that you have found disrespectful and untoward, like zero-tolerance policing and high levels of stop and frisk. We have to recognize and acknowledge that very often we have not treated you well. We’re going to go out of our way to respect your experience and your views, and we’re going to work together to figure out how to do those things differently.”

So Cunningham’s admission is a significant move. It obviously doesn’t solve all the issues that face police and minority communities today, but it’s an important start to do the other work needed to repair community-police relations. The question now is whether police chiefs and departments across the country will follow Cunningham’s example.

Watch: Why recording the police is so important