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The president of a group representing tens of thousands of law enforcement officers on Monday apologized for historic mistreatment of minorities in the United States, calling it a “dark side of our shared history” that must be acknowledged and overcome.
Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, told officials at the group’s annual conference that police have historically been a face of oppression in enforcing laws that ensure legalized discrimination and denial of basic rights.
While apologizing for past actions, Cunningham said today’s officers are not to blame for those injustices. He did not speak in detail about modern policing, but said events over the past several years have undermined public trust.
“While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future,” said Cunningham. “We must move forward together to build a shared understanding. We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.”
He said the first step was for law enforcement to “apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”
Cunningham, who is police chief of overwhelmingly white Wellesley, Massachusetts, received a standing ovation for his remarks on race relations, which lasted about four minutes and came just before he introduced U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who largely avoided the topic.
His comments come as police shootings of black men in recent years have roiled communities in Ferguson, Missouri; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and suburban St. Paul, Minnesota; and as black shooters have targeted officers in Dallas, the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin and Baton Rouge.
David Alexander III, chief of police in Pensacola, Florida, said recognizing historical injustices was key to addressing race relations, just as acknowledging domestic violence was a step forward, too.
“When you don’t know the history and you say, `Well, there is no problem,’ then you pretty much present yourself as insensitive to the issues,” said Alexander, who is black. “The issue of racial tension has been a part of American history since its settlement.”
Delrish Moss, who has been police chief of Ferguson, Missouri, since May and is black, said he had negative encounters with police when he was growing up, including being called racial epithets.
“There are communities that have long perceived us as oppressors, there are communities that have long perceived us as the jackbooted arm of government designed to keep people under control, and that’s one of the things we have to work hard to get past,” Moss said. “I’m glad it’s being addressed, I’m glad it’s being acknowledged, because the only way to get past it is to first acknowledge the existence of it.”