The head of America’s oldest and largest police association made waves Monday for apologizing to communities of colour for “historic mistreatment” at the hands of police officers.
Chief Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, made the remarks at the organisation’s annual conference, where he acknowledged that police have long been “the face of oppression” and enforced “legalised discrimination” across the country.
“While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future,” Cunningham told the conference audience. “We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.”
Although Cunningham’s remarks were praised by many police reform advocates and police leaders alike, others were either wary about the vagueness of his apology, or concerned it could fuel more resentment towards officers.
A common criticism was that Cunningham mentioned only “past injustices” and didn’t appear to address the modern instances of police brutality that have pervaded news cycles in recent years. Andre Branch, president of the NAACP’s San Diego branch, told the San Diego Union-Tribune his apology referred neither to a specific action nor period of time.
“One would want to know before we start jumping up and down and getting excited about an apology, is he referring to historical treatment of people of colour as last week? Or last month? Or the last century,” he said.
Yet the apology was a major move for someone of Cunningham’s stature, and a “necessary first step” in changing police-community relations, Jeffrey Robinson of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Washington Post.
“The fact that someone high in the law enforcement community has said this is significant and I applaud it because it is long overdue,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. told the Associated Press that Cunningham’s remarks were “asinine” and perpetuated the notion that law enforcement is full of “bad guys.”
“Our profession is under attack right now,” Kroll said. “We’ve got officers dying on almost a daily basis now because of this environment, and statements like that don’t help.”
Cunningham’s apology only served to appease the “violent anti-police movement,” according to William Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organisations.
“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,” he told the New York Times.
Cunningham’s remarks came just a day after FBI director James Comey addressed the same conference, and similarly acknowledged the “history of law enforcement’s interaction with black America.”
Comey, however, cautioned against reinforcing the idea that “biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates” and argued that “nobody knows” whether a trend in police use of deadly force exists.
“We face another threat from the narrative that policing is biased and violent and unfair. It threatens the future of policing, so we have to talk about it as well,” he said.
Instead, Comey touted the need for better data collection on deadly use of force incidents — an initiative that was formally announced by the Department of Justice last Thursday — and urged police leaders to bridge the gap between officers and the communities that distrust them.
“If people don’t trust the police, they aren’t going to offer the tips, they aren’t going to whisper to the cop that they saw the up-close shooting … Instead, they are going to stay in side on their own side of the divide, the chasm.”
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