In one of the most unexpected and frankly hopeful developments in this stressful period in American policing, the president of the nation’s largest police organization this week issued a formal apology to the nation’s minorities for the profession’s “historical mistreatment of communities of color.”
It was a brave and important step by Wellesley, Mass., Police Chief Terrence M. Cunningham and – even more hopeful – one that was met with a standing ovation by his peers at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In response, leaders of two leading civil rights groups – the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union – praised Cunningham for his comments.
That makes this a turning point.
Despite the protests of those who reflexively defend police regardless of the circumstances, it has become painfully and shockingly obvious in recent years that minorities across the country get rougher treatment by police than white people. They are stopped for little or no reason. In New York City, they were also frisked. They are shot, sometimes without provocation, as occurred last year in North Charleston, S.C.
These are incontestible facts. They don’t mean that police aren’t individually brave and honorable or that they aren’t subject to hostility, extreme disrespect and, lately, gunfire. But something had to change and, given that police hold the upper hand – they’re the ones with authority – it was important for police to become the primary force for improvement. On Monday, they did.
It couldn’t have been easy, and many police officers, we suspect, will object. Such is human nature. But these were police chiefs who recognize the historical sweep, nature and challenges of their profession.
The problem was well diagnosed in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Although Brown helped to instigate his own death, a Justice Department investigation concluded that policing in Ferguson was overtly racist.
Police chiefs also understand that technology, especially the internet, has permanently changed the equation. Five or 10 years ago, no one but a few officers might have known that Michael Slager, a white North Charleston police officer, shot Walter Scott, an African-American, in the back as he fled on foot from a minor police stop.
Unbeknownst to Slager and others on the scene, an observer had recorded the shooting on video, and shared it with Scott’s family. It was picked up by news outlets and can be seen on YouTube.
Similarly, the girlfriend of Philando Castile live-streamed his shooting by a white police officer in Minnesota on Facebook. It was there for the world to see.
That genie is not going back into the bottle and, indeed, it is well that it is out.
On its own, such events suggest, but don’t prove, institutional racism. Cunningham’s brave comments acknowledge it as a fact. From this moment, there can be no denying and no turning back. Change will have to be driven by police, but it will take the efforts of all citizens to make the most of this remarkable and useful moment.
That requires the establishment of new relationships between police and the communities they serve, especially in minority neighborhoods where trust is lacking or nonexistent. Individual police departments will have to initiate that work, but Cunningham has given them the opportunity to act and, with it, to make communities and officers safer. They dare not forfeit this opportunity.
But it won’t work if those communities don’t also take advantage of this opening. Minorities have been the main victims in this broken dynamic, but they have an intrinsic and inescapable role in changing it, as well. Marriages may fall apart because of the misconduct of a single spouse, but it takes both to reconcile.
In a strange and stressful year, when police have been murdered in twisted bids for revenge, Cunningham’s apology counts as a hard stop. We are at a crossroads. It’s important not to simply plow ahead.