It was a simple acknowledgement that law enforcement has not always treated minorities fairly. But for some, the remarks Terrence M. Cunningham made to thousands of fellow officers at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention offered hope for change.
“I was so pleasantly surprised and somewhat relieved that someone in that position would make a statement that there has been actual mistreatment of minorities,” Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday. “I see it as a significant step — removing a very heavy cloak of denial or defensiveness that has been the response for any person of color or communities of color that have tried to assert that there are differences.”
Several metro Atlanta police agencies declined to comment on the IACP president’s words when contacted by The AJC, though some local chiefs were in San Diego for the convention. And one criminal justice professor says the admission of guilt will be troubling for some. But in order for drastic changes, law enforcement and other community groups must work together, according to local and state leaders.
In July 2015, Cupid said she was followed by an undercover officer because she was black, The AJC reported. In December, Cupid — who represent south Cobb — called for changes within the county’s police department, including overhauling the complaint process, providing cultural sensitivity training and prioritizing diversity in the department.
“I believe that we as governmental leaders can empower our police departments to have an approach that’s free of disparities,” Cupid said Tuesday.
City of LaGrange police Chief Lou Dekmar, the IACP vice president, said his community is so diverse, racial reconciliation has been a goal for nearly two years. Next October, Dekmar will be sworn in as the president of the organization, which has 23,000 members.
“Police have always been working in communities of color … but the unspoken elephant in the room in some has always been the element of distrust,” Dekmar said Tuesday.
Dekmar has nearly 40 years of experience in law enforcement, which remains a noble profession based on sacrifice and service. But racial discrimination, Dekmar says: “That’s our darkest hour.”
The acknowledgement of past mistakes will hopefully keep the discussion going in communities, Dekmar said.
“The more important step is to acknowledge that in the past we did things that weren’t appropriate or wrong, or were instruments of political systems that were wrong,” Dekmar said. “As institutions, we owe an apology.”
Marietta police Chief Dan Flynn, in an emailed statement, said law enforcement agencies will regain trust by striving for fairness.
“There is strength in diversity and we need to move forward into the future tackling society’s public safety issues and discharging our duties in a spirit of cooperation, mutual trust, respect and above all fairness to everyone,” Flynn said.
Critics said Chief Cunningham undercut his message by failing to recognize racism among present-day police forces, The New York Times reported.
“Police racism is not just a relic of history. Until police leaders acknowledge that bias is a problem right now, they will not have earned the confidence of communities of color,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the author of “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.”
Still, it’s going to take more than just law enforcement’s apology for changes to take place, according to Dean Dabney, an associate professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.
“The stakes are so high, and the motion and pain so great, it’s not surprising that the narrative repeats itself over and over again,” Dabney said.
Dabney said some in the law enforcement community may be troubled by the IACP president’s statement and seemingly guilty admission. But it’s going to take both police agencies and communities working together to spark change.
“It’s going to take a lot of these incremental steps toward the other,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction, certainly.”