The Case For Apology

untitled 3Trusting Police: The Case for Apology From a Veteran Police Chief

David C. Couper

A number of years ago when I was chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin one of my officers made a terrible mistake. It was an unconscious remark that could have severely undermined the trust we had built over the years with people of color in our city. In short, it was an inappropriate comment uttered after being informed of a fire in one of our troubled, predominately black housing areas. She had, without thinking, cheerily hummed “Scotland’s burning…” Later, she was shocked to learn the fire tragically claimed the lives of five children. When that loose remark became public, there was disappointment with us and cries for her dismissal.

Instead of firing her, I decided to do something else. I decided to apologize. After meeting with the officer, we agreed we would both apologize. The community leaders who accepted our invitation to meet were angry. It was tense. Nevertheless, after listening and questioning us, our apologies were accepted. To this day, I remember this as a great and wondrous gift.

The point is that apology and its hoped for result, forgiveness, can be more than an act between two people, it can also occur between groups. Some successful examples come immediately to mind: South frica, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the mish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Two years ago, there was another successful example when Montgomery, Alabama police chief Kevin Murphy publicly apologized to longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis. It was for the behavior of his police over five decades ago when Lewis and other Freedom Riders came to Montgomery and were mistreated. Murphy apologized for acts that had occurred before he was even born. s a symbol of his apology he gave Lewis his badge. Lewis accepted it with tears in his eyes.

How did we get to where we are today? It seems that we unknowingly fell into a system of criminal justice in merica that became more and more oriented toward domination than problem solving, more toward arrest and incarceration than prevention and treatment. While I speak today about the role of police, it will be up to others to examine the rest of our system of criminal justice and how it also needs to change. Systems of domination exist whenever and wherever one group of people works to control another group for their advantage and at the expense of others. In order for this system to continue those who work in a domination system must be trained to think and act in ways that support that system. That’s why changing them is so difficult. For those inside, and those outside the system who benefit by it, all this seems normal and the way it should be.

I am not the first person to identify systems of social and economic domination, collective actions that favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of those who are not. The criminal justice system is just one of our many domination systems. Joining them are, but not limited to, systems of education, commerce, finance, employment, and housing.

I served as a police officer and chief for over thirty years. Since my retirement I have continued to comment and write about the need for police improvement. It is my opinion that in order to restore trust between police and the communities they serve, our nation’s police must collectively apologize, just as Kevin Murphy did. It is what we need today to begin to heal the relationships between blacks and police. It is the only way to move past events of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and the residual effects we all have inherited from slavery, Jim Crow, and pernicious and residual racial discrimination.

Why apologize and seek forgiveness? Forgiveness is a process, a way to cease to feel resentment or anger regarding a perceived offense. It is not necessary that a person hold spiritual or religious beliefs in order to forgive. The act of forgiveness can stand by itself.

Why forgive? There is a cost for not being able to forgive, both social and personal. The unwillingness to forgive has been described as drinking poison each day of your life hoping the person who offended you will die. Holding on to resentment and anger is not healthy.

In order for any relationship, individual or collective, to survive the destruction of trust, an apology must first take place, “I am truly sorry that I have hurt you.” The next step is for the parties to agree to restore that which was lost. Forgiveness takes time. It is hard work. And to speak words of forgiveness before your heart is in agreement is not real forgiveness.

Since I left policing, I have had a number of opportunities to help individuals and groups repair broken trust. I know apology is only the very first step. fter apology, validating acts must occur. If the offender begins to act trustworthy, and shows concern and compassion for those offended, that which was once lost can begin to be rebuilt.

Now is the time for a national apology from our nation’s police. I have already made mine. Police must understand that the act of apology and seeking forgiveness is the only way forward. Their apology will begin to free us all.

If this fails to happen, our present system of policing will continue to erode away the foundational values of our great society. It will forestall building the trust, respect, and support that police in a free society need in order to operate fairly and effectively. It is that important. If we fail to take action at this important national crossroad, our anger and suffering will continue.



  1. thank you for this example: “She had, without thinking, cheerily hummed “Scotland’s burning…” Later, she was shocked to learn the fire tragically claimed the lives of five children. When that loose remark became public, there was disappointment with us and cries for her dismissal.” I believe it is so difficult to have teachers form “clinical judgment” when working with students. Teachers get fired for insensitive statements. Experience comes from the dialogue with administrators, supervisors and other teachers and we have so little sharing with each other now because a lot of teachers work in daily fear of losing their jobs and the administrators have to demand control of the budget (or they are in fear of being fired). It seems to be pervasive in our culture — this kind of fear. It is helpful when you point out these examples and I know it helps me to think of parallels in the work with youth in the schools .


    1. One of Dr W. Edwards Deming’s points to improve the quality of any work system was to “drive fear out of the workplace.” When those of us who have to work for “the man” come to work fearful we cannot expect them to come up with good ideas on how to improve the work. Later Dr Tom Gordon (“Leadership Effectiveness Training”) noted that the number one thing that happens when leaders use coercion is the the person being coerced tends to withhold helpful information. When will leaders come to understand this?


      1. When will leaders come to understand this?

        As long as the workers (who are also customers) are not treated as equal partners in the political, social, and economic aspects in this country, the answer is never.

        It will probably take another catastrophe like the Great Depression or a war to bring us to our knees, cleanse our souls, and take back our government from the wealthy people and corporations. It took two world wars before the Germans finally learn about the relationship between the government (including the police) and its citizens.


  2. Pingback: Improving Police
  3. Reblogged this on Improving Police and commented:

    Looking back at Ferguson and where we are today with regard to policing I have argued that improving our nation’s police is integral to the restoration of trust. Improvement must be both seen and felt by those who now distrust police.

    But it won’t end here. Eventually, I have argued, there will have to be a collective apology on the part of police. Why? Because wrong, unintentional as most of it was, has been done. In America, our police have been used to control one segment of society for the benefit of another — and that is what domination systems do.

    While apology for police may at first seem to be a bitter pill they cannot or will not swallow, the way forward will demand it.


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