Advocates: Police Official Gave ‘Half an Apology’—‘We Still Have a Long Way to Go’

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Advocates: Police Official Gave ‘Half an Apology’—‘We Still Have a Long Way to Go’

Auditi Guha

Civil rights advocates have long maintained that excessive police force negatively affects communities of color. A study published this year found that Black Americans report crime less often after police violence in their communities.

The president of an international law enforcement association over the past year has released statements expressing his sadness in the aftermath of violence in Dallas, Baton Rouge, San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, and Brussels.

But on Monday, Terrence M. Cunningham issued a different kind of statement at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in San Diego–an apology “for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”

Scott Roberts, senior campaign director with the national online civil rights group Color of Change, told Rewire he sees Cunningham’s comments as half an apology.

“The acknowledgement is important. What it means is that it recognizes the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement and its demands,” he said.

Roberts took issue with Cunningham’s claim that discriminatory laws and reactionary police actions are a thing of the past.

“I don’t know at what point in history Cunningham thinks discriminatory policing ended,” he said, citing the drug war that disproportionately targets people of color. “I heard no commitment from the IACP to do anything differently or recommend changes to end this abusive system. We still have a long way to go.”

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At a time when distrust of police is high in communities of color, an apology from a high-ranking law enforcement official is “encouraging,” said Chris Burbank, director of law enforcement engagement at the Center for Policing Equity.

“We need to change the negative biases in the criminal justice system and this is a step in the right direction,” he told Rewire. “It is absolutely the first step to recognize we have a problem. As a profession, we need to change the dynamic that exists.”

Racial bias is not just a problem in policing, Burbank said. Discrimination against people of color also affects housing, health care, and education.

While an apology is welcomed, it is now time to follow through, Burbank continued. Police departments must make a conscious effort to collect accurate data, video, reports, and be transparent about them. “All of it goes toward public trust and that’s at a low point in policing right now,” he said.

Civil rights advocates have long maintained that excessive force deployed by police negatively affects communities of color. Data has backed their charges.

A study published this year in American Sociological Review found that Black Americans report crime less often after police violence in their communities. 

Police have been criticized for using phone trackers to seize location data from suspects’ phones, without a warrant or a disclosure. Mapping logs of Stingray operations, one such tracking technology, in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Tallahassee, found that police “overwhelmingly use Stingrays in non-white and low-income communities,” according to CityLab. 

These are among the reasons people in racially segregated communities often do not turn to law enforcement for support.

Cunningham, chief of police in Wellesley, Massachusetts, became president of the police organization about a year after Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, as demonstrations against police brutality began sprouting up around the country.

“I had no idea how challenging those issues were going to be,” Cunningham said this month in an IACP TV interview.

Cunningham helped set up the Institute for Community-Police Relations this summer, “designed to provide guidance and assistance to law enforcement agencies looking to enhance community trust, by focusing on culture, policies, and practices,” according to the website.

“It really does start with the community and people forget that the police are the community and we are a part of the community,” he said in the IACP TV interview. “We want to reinforce the good culture in policing and leadership in policing and it’s our job as police administrators to root out the bad culture.”

He said it is important for leaders to encourage transparency and accountability in police departments and provide the tools to improve interactions with communities.

Despite widespread public outcry against police shootings of unarmed Black men, FBI Director James B. Comey told police chiefs at the IACP conference that people don’t know how often police use force because there isn’t enough data, the Washington Post reported.

Comey’s speech came days after the Justice Department announced a plan to collect better data starting in early 2017 to create the first comprehensive online database on deadly and nonfatal interactions the public has with police.

“Many decent caring people believe with all their hearts that American law enforcement is using deadly force against Black people at epidemic levels … because those are the videos they see, over and over again,” Comey said in a speech Sunday. “However well intentioned they may be, Americans actually have no idea whether the number of Black people or brown people or white people being shot by police is up, down, or sideways, over the last three years, five years, ten years.”