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 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, La.
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."
Jeffrey 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 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.