“This week marks a stellar moment in our nation’s history and a great opportunity for healing. Police have the chance to prove themselves trustworthy. Communities have the chance to accept apologies. The establishment of local truth and reconciliation forums could steadfastly and authentically work toward new beginnings.”
Admitting sins of the past is a good first step. But model a full reconciliation after South Africa.
By David C. Couper
[First appeared online at USA Today 9:43 p.m. EDT October 20, 2016]
I was the chief of police in Madison, Wis., when one of my sergeants made an insensitive, stupid and damaging remark about a low-income housing unit that was the scene of continuous police activity. She heard from our dispatcher that the units were on fire. Callously, she sang Scotland’s Burning to the dispatcher. She later learned that five black children had died in the incident. When I first heard about what she had done, I knew trouble was ahead. The mayor was angry and wanted me to fire her. I thought another approach was in order.
We publicly and openly apologized to our community, particularly to neighborhoods of color. The officer, who was visibly distraught, also performed community service. Our apologies were accepted, and trust that could have been shattered was not. It taught me a strong lesson — being open, vulnerable and sincerely apologetic can help communities move forward and create change.
Speaking to wrongs of the past
Chief Terry Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, must have thought something similar when he apologized Monday for the divisive police tactics that had been used against minority communities in this country for decades. His words referenced Jim Crow and the fact that law enforcement had a role in perpetuating past wrongs.
He’s not the first police chief to apologize for the massive sins of law enforcement’s past. Three years ago, Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy apologized to civil rights leader-turned-congressman John Lewis over the beatings he and other Freedom Riders endured during marches for voting rights. Both apologies were bold and courageous.
Minorities in every city, precinct, suburb and subdivision deserve as much. Police chiefs across the nation should make formal, open, pointed apologies for the wrongs suffered by blacks, Hispanics and Asians either directly at the hands of cops or because cops were complicit in supporting a discriminatory system.
But Cunningham’s apology didn’t go far enough.
As a reverend, I’ve seen how other nations have more effectively sought forgiveness for wrongs — political, social and otherwise — committed in the name of government control. And they paired the apologies with action.
In 1999, I was a delegate to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in Cape Town, South Africa. I talked with white, black and colored South Africans who benefited from the work of their country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was South Africa’s way of forestalling the blood bath that would surely follow the dismantling of the brutal and unjust system of apartheid.
I was nervous. I feared being thrown into a South African prison (they had gruesome reputations). So when cops approached the group of about 60 demonstrators who had gathered outside a local jail, I was ready to run. White officers gave us several warnings: “Move along, or you will be arrested.” But one of the protesters told me not to worry: “They say the same things they used to say, but they will not and do not arrest us!”
A great opportunity
So while it was absolutely necessary for Cunningham to apologize for past acts of violence against black citizens, he should have also apologized for the present. Yes, terrible things were done but, unlike the repaired system in South Africa, the injustices of racial segregation, judgment and bias that made policing so openly wrong in the past are still bubbling under the surface and controlling the actions of American law enforcement. Our truth and reconciliation has yet to happen. And the lingering issues associated with America’s apartheid are preventing us from moving on. Cunningham should have taken that giant second step and should have then promoted a specific plan to move forward.
The Fraternal Order of Police has criticized Cunningham’s apology, stating that a strategy is more important than words, according to The Washington Post. And it seems that more unions may follow.
This is not the time for white police officers to say their families never owned slaves and didn’t have a hand in enforcing Jim Crow, something I heard officers say throughout my career. It is time to acknowledge that white America and its police have collectively acted in ways that did not help people of color achieve equality in this society. That deserves an apology and, yes, even reparations.
Black Madison civil rights activist John Odom was also concerned about the fallacy of apologies, but for very different reasons. When I talked to him about my strong belief that police chiefs across the country should seek forgiveness, he warned that the gesture “cannot be hollow or feckless. It cannot be disingenuous. And (it) must signal a philosophical and operational pivot from the current status quo. … The black community has to be convinced to accept apologies in a spirit of trust, and police must prove themselves to be trustworthy. If a page is to be turned, both sides will have to make some concessions.”
This week marks a stellar moment in our nation’s history and a great opportunity for healing. Police have the chance to prove themselves trustworthy. Communities have the chance to accept apologies. The establishment of local truth and reconciliation forums could steadfastly and authentically work toward new beginnings.
[Reposted from USA TODAY.]