Terrell Carter

Terrence Cunningham, police chief of Wellesley, Massachusetts and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, recently offered an apology to communities of color for acts committed by law enforcement against minorities.

Chief Cunningham said that the apology was necessary as part of a process to “clear a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.”

He also said, “There have been times when law enforcement officers, because of the laws enacted by federal, state and local governments, have been the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens. In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans.” 

Chief Cunningham’s words have generally been met with support in the minority community and disagreement in the law enforcement community. This apology is a necessary first step in bridging the divide between law enforcement and minority citizens, because the past practices he alluded to were based on racial discrimination and separation and helped to start the current tension between minority cultures and law enforcement.

The often-overlooked history of American policing includes the foundation of building and maintaining the economic viability of whites through the enslavement and/or eradication of minorities, primarily Native Americans and Negroes. For instance, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, of which I was a member, was initially started to protect white citizens from Native Americans as the city began to be established.

Most Southern police departments began as slave patrols, which traveled through areas in the South rounding up Negroes in order to return them to their masters or to imprison them with the goal of leasing them to local corporations to perform physical labor. The African Americans who were being leased worked without pay, protection or basic human rights, while those who captured and leased them made substantial incomes from their enforced labor.

Police departments and white citizens in general were able to do this because the laws that were developed during this time allowed and encouraged these practices. Written and unwritten laws of the land, typically referred to as Black Codes in the South, allowed militiamen to arrest and detain a black person whose presence simply aroused suspicion. What amounted to suspicion? Being black and walking freely without being in service to a white person.

Additionally, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 threatened both law enforcement officials and ordinary citizens with severe fines if they failed to assist in the capture of a black person who was believed to have been a runaway slave. Blacks had no recourse for charges brought against them, even if the charges were false, because they did not have the right to defend themselves in court.

The tactics that were used in the past are still in practice today. At any given time an officer can approach you and detain you if you look suspicious. What does it take to look suspicious? Being in public without a clear purpose. If you disagree with the officer’s actions and attempt to defend your right to freely move about as you choose, you will likely be forcibly detained and arrested.

The way around this for most officers is to charge you with peace disturbance and resisting arrest. What constitutes peace disturbance and resisting arrest? Not doing what you were told, even if that command was unreasonable. The average citizen is then at a disadvantage, because our judicial system values the testimony of officers over ordinary people. Once a person is introduced to the criminal justice system, it is easier for them to be drawn back in. By using this method of policing, it becomes easy to enslave and incarcerate select groups of people without many political or social repercussions.

I am leading a series of webinars for Central Seminary that address how people can help bridge racial divides within their communities. Visit https://goo.gl/lATfhY.

Reprinted from Terrell’s Carter’s Huffington Post blog.

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