America’s largest police group apologized for “historical mistreatment” of black communities

Saying sorry is a hard thing to do. Which is why it’s a pretty noble thing that a police chief apologized for “historic mistreatment” of people of color on Monday night at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). Terrence Cunningham, the president of the largest police organization in the country, was speaking to 16,000 police chiefs at the conference in San Diego and said, “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.”

Cunningham, the chief of police in Wellesley, Massachusetts, called policing a “noble profession,” but acknowledged that police departments across the country need to change the future. “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 said.

That’s a pretty solid apology. Except that it was directed to a room full of cops and not the communities that have suffered from police misconduct. That might have a better effect when it comes to smoothing things over and really working on building trust in minority communities.

But his apology didn’t totally fail. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, issued a statement after Cunningham’s speech, saying that acknowledging that “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.” Ifill added that her organization has been working closely with the IACP in helping police departments come around, face some hard truths, and work to change policing policies. “They know that there’s a problem. 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,” she said.

So maybe it’s actually a good thing that the chief tried to get his message out to actual police chiefs, who can think long and hard on their trips home from the conference about the broken relationship between police and minority communities. Cunningham told The Washington Post on Monday, “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.” And he does hope that the chiefs will go home and spread the good word. “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,” he said.

Then again, like any apology, it has to be backed up with actions. DeRay Mckesson, Campaign Zero co-founder, told the Associated Press that he hopes the apology will be backed up with real “structural change” to the criminal justice system. Some officers at the event thought Chief Cunningham’s apology put more officers in danger. Lieutenant Bob Kroll, head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, called the statement “asinine.” Although two white officers shot a black man last year, Kroll feels his officers are “in danger” on a daily basis.

So who knows if the recognition that something has to change when it comes to police and community relations will fall on deaf ears or not. It’s nice to hear Cunningham apologize, at least.