Fault Lines
15 January 2019

Screaming “Hey Chief Cunningham, Shut Up About Race!” Won’t Help

October 21, 2016 (Mimesis Law) – For quite some time, we’ve been told we need to have a national conversation about race. Candidate Barack Obama said so. Eric Holder, then the Attorney General, called for that conversation too. Then President Obama gave us the beer summit over a white cop arresting a black professor.

After Trayvon Martin was killed, we were asked to have a conversation about race. After a series of deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers, Black Lives Matter rose up. Then police officers were targeted for reprisal in Dallas and other places. And there have been a variety of well-meaning but ignorant students trying to be part of an adult conversation and failing. Other, more positive aspects have included discussions on sentencing reform.

But on balance, that conversation hasn’t been going well. In particular, law enforcement has been accused of racist practices, yet supporters of reform see slow movement. In light of all of this, it might be expected that a voice inside law enforcement would be welcomed. Chief Terrence Cunningham, the outgoing president of the IACP, addressed both the issue of race and police reform:

For our part, the first step in this process is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.

At the same time, those who denounce the police must also acknowledge that today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past. If either side in this debate fails to acknowledge these fundamental truths, we will be unlikely to move past them.

Overcoming this historic mistrust requires that we must move forward together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. All members of our society must realize that we have a mutual obligation to work together to ensure fairness, dignity, security, and justice.

It is my hope that, by working together, we can break this historic cycle of mistrust and build a better and safer future for us all.

The head of a large law enforcement agency talks about race, policing, and reform. Sounds like an improvement on some of the conversation out there. And some people were pleased by this development, especially when it simultaneously upset some members of law enforcement:

For some police groups, the remarks by Chief Cunningham — who is stepping down this week as the organization’s leader — were an unfair criticism of officers, who are working in one of the most difficult periods in police-community relations in recent history.

“Such appeasement of the violent anti-police movement is just one more nail in the coffin of American law enforcement,” said William Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations. “The people who support American police officers aren’t looking for an apology. And for the people who hate the police, it won’t make any difference.”

Maybe it lacked the coolness of the White House Beer Summit, but it touched a lot bases. An acknowledgement of past racism is often seen as a necessary first step to get past it. It’s a respected law enforcement officer in a position of power saying it. And the statement was directed to other law enforcement officers. Despite this, Admiral Greenfield called the statement bullshit:

Now Chief Cunningham gives a bullshit speech and you’re fawning over it again. * * * I’m tearing up. That was so…so…full of shit. Want to end it? So end it. But the cops don’t want to end it, and, even more significantly, are “offended” that Chief Cunningham gave it all away. * * * Words. They hurt so bad that they make the very sensitive cry. They feel so good that they make the very passionate thrilled. Great first step, kids. Tell it to the cop as he’s pulling the trigger.

On one hand, I understand the sentiment. Talk is cheap. When media members or politicians usually talk about policing reform, it’s usually easy for them to give platitudes and walk away without giving it a second thought. But it’s a different matter when someone has skin in the game.

Taking a professional or personal risk to say something indicates that the speaker is essentially putting his or her money where the speaker’s mouth is. So, while they are still words, they aren’t cheap, throwaway words.

Here the Chief was putting some of his personal prestige and credibility on the line to talk about racism. This was not a statement given to distract people from a bad police shooting. It was not offered to explain away bad facts, bad policy, or bad management. Rather, it appears to be a genuine effort to improve the dialog.

Plus, this isn’t exactly a popular position. The above quote in opposition probably wasn’t the only one uttered. This guy didn’t go running to the media to get his 15 minutes of fame. Rather, he was addressing an audience of his peers and people whom he presumably respects and wishes to be respected by. He was using his position to address a room full of people who he felt needed to hear his message and who could do something about it.

Greenfield minimizes this statement too much. It’s not the vapid sort of statement made for political ends. Granted these are still words. And as he says, words wouldn’t stop a bullet coming towards you. But that sentiment is greatly underselling the importance of words.

As lawyers and writers we (should) understand that words can be important. Here’s what Bryan Garner said about this:

In some primitive cultures, names are thought to possess magical powers: Knowing someone’s name gives you some degree of power over that person. In those cultures, one’s true name is often known only to close family members—and another name is used by outsiders.

In a “sophisticated” culture like ours, we discount the power of names—perhaps too much. Lawyers certainly do. As a profession, we don’t seem semantically savvy enough to know that names make stories more vivid and interesting. More than that, they powerfully influence how we understand problems—in far subtler ways than most of us realize.

The Chief’s statement may be insufficient to change things. But it’s necessary. And it’s not bullshit. That’s far too much disqualification.

When Trump says that he respects women more than anyone else, that’s a dubious statement. It’s not bullshit when a police chief acknowledges law enforcement’s role in supporting racism and racist institutions. Not only is it true, but he’s putting some of his own reputation on the line to say that.

Real change will require allies like the police chief. Minimizing and insulting law enforcement officers willing to step forward is a sure way to divert the energy away from constructive avenues for change. And it will only prolong the change coming.

Greenfield is right in the sense we need to criticize those who want to cheapen the sufferings that folks have endured. And we should be dismissive of empty words made by people who neither mean them nor have standing to do what they say. But he’s wrong to be aggressively dismissive of individual law enforcement officers who see problems from the past and present, who wish to do something about it.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Ben
    21 October 2016 at 10:37 am - Reply

    The problem with the statement wasn’t that it was just words. The problem is that he acknowledged PAST racism, while stating absolutely nothing about the ongoing racial problems still facing people who interact with the police in this country. It’s much easier to apologize about things in the past than acknowledge wrongs that are still ongoing. The chief framing the entire statement in the past tense, and that is complete bullshit.

  • Greg Prickett
    21 October 2016 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    What Ben said is right, as is what Scott said.

    This was BS, for the camera. Street cops know it is BS. Activists know it is BS.

    If you want to stop racial disparity in police actions, you don’t frame it in the past, you frame it in the present, on what needs to be done now. And what needs to be done now is to completely revise the police mindset, away from being a warrior who must survive at all costs, regardless of the collateral damage to the public, and to one of being a guardian, who is dedicated to protecting civilian life at the risk of their own.

    You have to start to hold police accountable when they err, and to do that you have to get outside agencies to investigate and outside lawyers to prosecute, because the current system doesn’t allow cops to be prosecuted like everyone else.

    Cunningham was blowing smoke. That’s all. His words were designed for feelz, not action.