The beginning of the end of police violence?

Talk is notoriously cheap of course, and at particularly cut-rate discount when it comes from the mouths of government officials. But this sounds really, really good to me.

U.S. police chiefs group apologizes for ‘historical mistreatment’ of minorities

The president of America’s largest police organization on Monday issued a formal apology 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 M. 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.

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.”

The 16,000 police chiefs and law enforcement officials in attendance gave him a standing ovation.

I would like to see this talk lead to, you know, positive action. And if it results in a paradigm shift that proves beneficial with respect to racial minorities, it can and must be built upon to include the mentally ill, sex workers and other groups who suffer disproportionate violence at the hands of police.

If I sound hopeful, I’m really not. As everyone knows, I dislike and distrust humans as a species, and particularly conservative US citizens. It’s just that I want so fucking badly for police culture in my country to be excellent, for mass incarceration and the drug war to end, for the criminalization of poverty and race and queerness and mental illness to be a thing of the past, for state violence to be virtually eliminated. I may be cynical, but I’m not entirely irrational: it happens on rare occasions that humans surprise me for the better. And if US policing actually does get better, well, it would have to start somewhere, sometime, wouldn’t it?

Why not today, in San Diego?

The text of Chief Cunningham’s speech can be read in its entirely at the link.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    How many death threats has Terrence Cunningham received from disgruntled Trumpistas – so far?

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    All change and progress starts as grass roots movements. These thoughts must be given voice to start the movement. Just as BLM have given voice to this. Just as other groups have and will. It will take a wide and diverse coalition to bring change. And some of those voice will need to be in law enforcement.

  3. says

    Surely this means they will embrace body cams and stop using the threat of inaction to punish people who disagree with them.

    Pull the other one; it’s bell’d.

  4. says

    You know, it’s a very strange speech. It’s worth reading in full, but the heart is this:

    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.

    (emphasis added)

    Essentially, Chief Cunningham seems to be claiming that the root cause of the “mistrust” between police and communities of color is some kind of ancestral genetic memory of Jim Crow, which wasn’t the police’s idea in the first place, and for which today’s police cannot possibly be blamed.

    When I think of the “dark periods” in the history of American policing, the things that come to mind are, say, the wholesale corruption of police forces during Prohibition, or the “good-old-days” of unapologetic, routine application of the “third degree” (or, to use the technical term, torture) to coerce confessions. Episodes, that is, of systemic police lawlessness. And today, the headline issue isn’t “cops enforce racist law,” it’s officers committing assault and murder and having those crimes covered up by their colleagues, their chain of command, their union, and local prosecutors. That is: systematic lawlessness.

    Chief Cunningham seems to want to lay the groundwork for some kind of productive dialogue, and that’s a good thing, as far as it goes. But if we take him at his word — if he really does imagine that “distrust” of police is simply a case of misplaced blame for things that happened two generations ago — then “dialogue” still has to break through an immense barrier of ignorance and denial.

  5. says

    that guy on the internet: I don’t believe he’s “simply” saying it’s “a case of misplaced blame for things that happened two generations ago.” Given his audience, it would be understandable that he’d be doing some dog whistling to colleagues who are genuinely troubled by the relationships between police and minority communities, but for whatever reason(s) cannot see their own part in it, or a way to make positive changes. After all, they are all certainly aware of retaliation against officers who take a stand against other officers for doing what is right.

    But what he adds here reveals an understanding of unconscious bias and the nature of privilege that belies a simplistic and misplaced blame:

    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.

    Again, especially considering the context of the remarks, this deserves major props.

  6. says

    Again, especially considering the context of the remarks, this deserves major props.

    To be honest, I basically agree. It’s funny: I’m usually the glass-half-full guy. And I do get how complicated it is for a senior leader in law enforcement to make any kind of progress on these issues, particularly in a public forum.

    I’m just feeling…impatient. I’m waiting for someone prominent in law enforcement to show a little bit of professional pride, and say: “It makes me sick that these thugs are allowed to wear the same uniform that I wear. From now on, we’re going to hound these guys out of law enforcement with the ruthlessness previously reserved for those who report misconduct.” Professional pride — the “good side” of cop culture — could and should be such a powerful force for reform…it just drives me slightly batshit insane that it isn’t (yet).

    But you’re right…in a practical sense, it’s probably too much to ask right now.

    On the upside, Chief Cunningham’s remarks do accomplish an interesting and important rhetorical feat: he anchors all future dialogue in an acknowledgement that actual, for-real, no-holds-barred institutional racism was — at least at one time — a thing. It’s a little troubling that acknowledging facts found in high school history textbooks counts as progress, but, again, in the real world, it does. Yay?

  7. Jake Harban says

    Talk is cheap. Talk from government officials is at a cut-rate discount. And talk that offers empty apologies for “historical” misdeeds is piling up in landfills.

    This is just more of the same refrain we’ve heard over and over from oppressors of all stripes. “If it happened within the last 40 years, it was justified. If it happened more than 40 years ago, it was a Different Era and therefore not our fault and besides it’s too late to do anything about it now.”

    Any apology for past misdeeds not accompanied by a remedy for those misdeeds is just masturbation.