Police chiefs have long recognized the need to maintain good relations with their communities, of all races, and not allow an us-versus-them mentality to take root, either in their rank-and-file officer corps or in the neighborhoods where their citizens live. 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. Two top civil rights groups on Monday commended Cunningham for taking an important first step in acknowledging the problem.
“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 which “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.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said, “I think Chief Cunningham correctly identifies the need to acknowledge and apologize as a first step, and I don’t want to diminish how important the first step is,” because many police organizations have been reluctant to grapple with racial issues. She said the Legal Defense Fund has been speaking with the IACP about the role the Legal Defense Fund can play in improving policing. “They know that there’s a problem,” Ifill said. “They know that it’s a complicated and difficult one. They know there are problems in their own departments. And now we’re trying to take tentative steps toward what we hope will be productive measures.”
After his comments, Cunningham told The 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.
“I was one of the first ones to stand up” for the ovation, said Perry Tarrant, assistant chief of the Seattle police and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “I think there was high value in the apology, coming from the president of the IACP, that will bring folks that were reticent to come to the table for a conversation, to now consider doing so.” Tarrant said he had recently spoken to the mother of Philando Castile, killed by an officer in Minnesota while his girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook, and that an apology to her by the police chief of the department “inspired her to make this part of her life’s work going forward.”
The national Fraternal Order of Police was not overly impressed by Cunningham’s statement. Chuck Canterbury, the police union’s national president, said, “Words and apologies do not adequately address the current issues facing law enforcement and the communities that we serve,” Canterbury said. “Seeking workable solutions to issues that affect us all so directly is a much more worthy endeavor, one which will do far more to foster goodwill and understanding between law enforcement and the community at large. Proactive steps that address the real concerns — urban decay, jobs, education, housing, and the like — would benefit all Americans and we look forward to a dialogue of action — not just words — at this critical time in our history.”
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton welcomed the apology by Cunningham, but also said he “wants his words backed by action.” Sharpton said in a statement he hoped that Cunningham would “urge officers around the United States to back his words up with action and legislation to protect communities of color from the onslaught of police misconduct that has disturbed the country…words are important but action is integral.”
Cunningham’s comments came a day after FBI Director James 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 if 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 that 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, though it announced a plan to do so last week.
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.”
Here is the full text of Cunningham’s remarks Monday:
I would like to take a moment to address a significant and fundamental issue confronting our profession, particularly within the United States. Clearly, this is a challenging time for policing. Events over the past several years 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. At times such as this, it is our role as leaders to assess the situation and take the steps necessary to move forward.
This morning, I would like to address one issue that I believe will help both our profession and our communities. 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 made up of women and men who have sworn to place themselves between the innocent and those who seek to do them harm.
Over the years, thousands of police officers have laid down their lives for their fellow citizens while hundreds of thousands more have been injured while protecting their communities. The nation owes all of those officers, as well as those who are still on patrol today, an enormous debt of gratitude.
At the same time, it is also clear that the history of policing has also 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 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 multigenerational—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.
NOTE: This post has been updated with reactions to the speech from civil rights and police officials, and to note that the IACP is the largest police management organization, not police organization.