Some Words Don’t Come Easily

“Sorry and forgive me are difficult words. They are not easy to say. To forgive, or ask for forgiveness, is to dig deep into our humanity. It is to risk opening ourselves up to another so that healing might begin for everyone.”
Jesus’ story of the father forgiving his prodigal son portrayed by Rembrandt (circa 1663).

The title from today’s post comes from lyric by Tracy Chapman, Baby, Can I Hold You?

“Sorry is all that you can’t say
Years gone by and still
Words don’t come easily
Like sorry…

“Forgive me is all that you can’t say
Years gone by and still
Words don’t come easily
Like forgive me…”

Chapman is right, words like sorry and forgive me do not come easily for any of us.

Note: The following article appeared in Madison’s Capital Times.

Some words don’t come easily.

Now that the city has made a record-breaking financial settlement in the death of Tony Robinson, I find myself unsettled.

As a veteran cop, I still have one foot in the police world. It is where I have lived and worked for most of my adult life. I can understand the position the police are taking in protecting one of their own. Policing is a difficult and sometimes thankless job and cops need to depend on one another. I understand this.

But I also have another foot planted just as firmly in the community. It is the community that balanced my policing life, nurtured me, and gave me direction. I understand their grief, pain and confusion as well.

The officer involved in Robinson’s death will continue to experience suffering and emotional pain. It doesn’t just go away because he was exonerated by his department and the district attorney. There are no winners when a police department and its community clash.

I sense this matter is not over. The family of Tony Robinson continues to seek justice and the police feel they have been justified. But if Madison is going to be the caring, forward-thinking community I know it to be, more must be done.

As long as both sides see the other as evil and wrong this tragedy will never heal; in fact, it may fester for years and continue to breed mistrust and negatively impact how the city and its police work together.

Here’s something to think about. Physicians make mistakes every day and some of them cause people to die. In response, hospital administrators encourage doctors who make mistakes, even fatal ones, to immediately engage in a process so the error does not happen again. They are also encouraged to apologize to those whom they harmed.

Why? Because fixing the system, rather than punishing the doctor, leads to medical improvements like check lists, two-person dosage checking, and new protocols. It leads to new practices like visibility. e.g., marking the correct limb to be amputated (yes, those mistakes do happen!). This approach is focused on fixing work systems and improving procedures so that the same mistake does not happen again. The result is less litigation and more emotional healing for all concerned. Compensation can and still is part of the process.

The medical community calls these “sentinel events.” They are unanticipated events that result in death or serious physical or psychological injury to a patient that is not related to the patient’s illness.

The objective of declaring a medical event as “sentinel” is to look for ways to prevent a mistake or error from happening; not to “shame or blame” the person who made the mistake. Could not the same approach be taken with police errors?

In our present system, when a police-involved death occurs, the focus is on justifying the act by city and police leaders, union officials, and supportive citizens. The result is immediate polarization as police and their supporters rally around the officer and aggrieved community members circle the victim’s friends and family. This results in anger, conflict, and mistrust of police. How to fix the system that caused the error is often ignored or forgotten.

But fixing the system also means apologizing for the error. And that may be the hardest part. Systems cannot ask for forgiveness. Only people can.

This is not a new idea. Historically and theologically, the world has seen the positive effects of seeking forgiveness both individual and corporate. This has occurred, for example, in South Africa; Bosnia; Rwanda; Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania and recently in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Sorry and forgive me are difficult words. They are not easy to say. To forgive, or ask for forgiveness, is to dig deep into our humanity. It is to risk opening ourselves up to another so that healing might begin for everyone.

When public tragedies like police use of deadly force occur, more is at stake than those who are directly involved. In fact, a community’s social fabric is torn and our sense of fairness and decency are in jeopardy.

Do you think we could start now with the death Tony Robinson? The officer has been legally absolved and a significant sum of money given to the Robinson family. It no longer matters whose side you are on; what matters now is to do the fixing and healing.

I love this city. As a young 34-year-old police chief, I grew up here. It was here I realized my dream of how a city and its police should work and thrive.

In September 1948, Madison was featured on the front cover of Life magazine. We were called the best city in America in which to live! Madison was younger then. Years have passed as we have become more diverse and wise.

It is time to apologize when we fail each other. We do so because we know we can do better. When we fix those systems that have not met our expectations, we put Madison once again back on the front cover of America.


Additional information not in the news story:

Some international and national examples of successful pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation:

Read about medical apologies in The Washington Post.

Read about the Joint Commission and Sentinel Events.

The three leading Sentinel Events in 2015:

  •  Unintended retention of a foreign bodies — 116 documented events.
  • Wrong-patient, wrong-site, wrong-procedures — 111 documented events.
  • Falls — 95 documented events.

Further information on the important role of forgiveness:


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