Reposting My Article in USA Today on Apology

“This week marks a stellar moment in our nation’s history and a great opportunity for healing. Police have the chance to prove themselves trustworthy. Communities have the chance to accept apologies. The establishment of local truth and reconciliation forums could steadfastly and authentically work toward new beginnings.”

Admitting sins of the past is a good first step. But model a full reconciliation after South Africa.

By David C. Couper

[First appeared online at USA Today 9:43 p.m. EDT October 20, 2016]

We publicly and openly apologized to our community, particularly to neighborhoods of color. The officer, who was visibly distraught, also performed community service. Our apologies were accepted, and trust that could have been shattered was not. It taught me a strong lesson — being open, vulnerable and sincerely apologetic can help communities move forward and create change.

Speaking to wrongs of the past

Chief Terry Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, must have thought something similar when he apologized Monday for the divisive police tactics that had been used against minority communities in this country for decades. His words referenced Jim Crow and the fact that law enforcement had a role in perpetuating past wrongs.

He’s not the first police chief to apologize for the massive sins of law enforcement’s past. Three years ago, Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy apologized to civil rights leader-turned-congressman John Lewis over the beatings he and other Freedom Riders endured during marches for voting rights. Both apologies were bold and courageous.

Minorities in every city, precinct, suburb and subdivision deserve as much. Police chiefs across the nation should make formal, open, pointed apologies for the wrongs suffered by blacks, Hispanics and Asians either directly at the hands of cops or because cops were complicit in supporting a discriminatory system.

But Cunningham’s apology didn’t go far enough.

As a reverend, I’ve seen how other nations have more effectively sought forgiveness for wrongs — political, social and otherwise — committed in the name of government control. And they paired the apologies with action.

In 1999, I was a delegate to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in Cape Town, South Africa. I talked with white, black and colored South Africans who benefited from the work of their country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was South Africa’s way of forestalling the blood bath that would surely follow the dismantling of the brutal and unjust system of apartheid.

I was nervous. I feared being thrown into a South African prison (they had gruesome reputations). So when cops approached the group of about 60 demonstrators who had gathered outside a local jail, I was ready to run. White officers gave us several warnings: “Move along, or you will be arrested.” But one of the protesters told me not to worry: “They say the same things they used to say, but they will not and do not arrest us!”

A great opportunity

images-2So while it was absolutely necessary for Cunningham to apologize for past acts of violence against black citizens, he should have also apologized for the present. Yes, terrible things were done but, unlike the repaired system in South Africa, the injustices of racial segregation, judgment and bias that made policing so openly wrong in the past are still bubbling under the surface and controlling the actions of American law enforcement. Our truth and reconciliation has yet to happen. And the lingering issues associated with America’s apartheid are preventing us from moving on. Cunningham should have taken that giant second step and should have then promoted a specific plan to move forward.

The Fraternal Order of Police has criticized Cunningham’s apology, stating that a strategy is more important than words, according to The Washington Post. And it seems that more unions may follow.

This is not the time for white police officers to say their families never owned slaves and didn’t have a hand in enforcing Jim Crow, something I heard officers say throughout my career. It is time to acknowledge that white America and its police have collectively acted in ways that did not help people of color achieve equality in this society. That deserves an apology and, yes, even reparations.

Black Madison civil rights activist John Odom was also concerned about the fallacy of apologies, but for very different reasons. When I talked to him about my strong belief that police chiefs across the country should seek forgiveness, he warned that the gesture “cannot be hollow or feckless. It cannot be disingenuous. And (it) must signal a philosophical and operational pivot from the current status quo. … The black community has to be convinced to accept apologies in a spirit of trust, and police must prove themselves to be trustworthy. If a page is to be turned, both sides will have to make some concessions.”

This week marks a stellar moment in our nation’s history and a great opportunity for healing. Police have the chance to prove themselves trustworthy. Communities have the chance to accept apologies. The establishment of local truth and reconciliation forums could steadfastly and authentically work toward new beginnings.

[Reposted from USA TODAY.]


  1. You have in the past compared our current situation to a marriage that has suffered infidelity and the necessity of an apology to save the marriage. I believe that is a false analogy to the situation we currently face. If I am unfaithful to my spouse my parents can’t apologize for me. Even if you could convince 16,000 police chiefs to apologize it would be meaningless unless their 700,000 police officers are also contrite. Where we are and where we are likely to end up fails Mr. Odom’s test.

    So, what could work? In as much as we seem to be enamored with European policing as of late I would hold up the example of the police in Germany. The police in Germany played an important role in Nazi power and the Holocaust. Below is a link to how you can be brutally honest about the past.

    Perhaps some equivalent in the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture would be useful.

    Demanding an apology from those who did nothing and attempting to hang all of America’s past wrongs around the necks of her police officers does and will continue to create only resistance.
    What is important is that we create change. In order to do that we must anticipate and overcome resistance to that change. Accurate and brutally honest assessment of the past is the only way to stimulate commitment to change.

    We have a choice; we can call for an apology that will not be accepted, because it will not be viewed as heartfelt, or we can create meaningful change.


    1. Yes. Apology without a visible, felt change is hollow. Where I think you and I differ, Mark, is that I still believe the SYSTEM is oppressive and oppressing many in our society. Nevertheless, whether it presently does or does not, it could be improved — could be fairer and more just — that’s where I think the future work of police in our society lies. Thanks of the link. I am teaching an upper division course in the spring: “Police Leadership in Changing Times.” It is a new course and I have been trying to deeply think what I’ve learned and experienced and how all this can help a young police officer strive to lead and lead well! It’s a big challenge.


  2. If the German police played an important part in Nazis power, then the American police played an important in maintaining the institution of slavery, the institution of crop-sharing, the institution of Jim Crow, the institution of Black Code laws, and the institution of corporate power after the Civil War. By the way, many German police officers were put on trial and executed or put in prison in Russia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia for what they did. You can not say the same thing about American police officers for violating people’s civil, political, social, and economic rights since this country was founded.

    I wish Chief Terry Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, should have made several other apologies on behalf of the American police:

    1) harassing, intimidating and even murdering labor workers/activists during the 19th and 20th century.

    2) Sending to people on phony, baloney evidence and/or withholding evidence that send a person to prison or could have set an innocent person free from prison while the real criminals are roaming the streets committing more crimes.

    3) labeling people and organizations as genuine threats to the USA when there was no credible evidence that they were a threat, when all the people and organizations want to do was to express their economic, social, and economic rights.

    4) not taking white collar corporate crimes and crimes by wealthy people seriously

    5) being a private force for corporations and wealthy people.

    6) Not supporting private and public labor unions when it comes to wanting better wages and a decent standard of living. Too many police unions vote for politicians who gave the police what they wanted in return for political and financial support when election time came around. It is about time police unions start working with other unions instead of looking out for themselves while the rest of the American population are being deprived of their labor rights.

    7) illegal spying on the American population during much of the 19th century, 20th century and even today and keeping files on them. J. Edgar Hoover had files on just about everyone from what I heard.

    8) harassing, intimidating and destroying left-wing, progressive, socialists individuals and organizations who were trying to bring about positive change in this country.

    9) Maintaining the code of silence, letting the bad cops get away with what they have done, and driving good cops off the force.

    “Demanding an apology from those who did nothing and attempting to hang all of America’s past wrongs around the necks of her police officers does and will continue to create only resistance.”

    When the good cops didn’t do anything about the bad cops, they are just as guilty as if they had committed the crimes themselves. It is called being an accessory.

    Police need to face their past about what they have done. It is time to face the music and settle up.


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