LaGrange, Georgia Police Chief Louis Dekmar recently did something rare in policing: He issued a public apology.
Even more remarkable was that the apology was for a lynching that took place in 1940 and the Chief openly acknowledged the police department’s role in the crime. Chief Dekmar took this unprecedented step because he understands the legacy of such hatred, committed in the name of justice, will remain a stain on the community unless it is called out. That is the point.
When I was a new supervisor, I received a complaint about an officer on my squad. After speaking with the officer and the citizen, I determined the officer had been wrong in his actions. During my follow up conversation, the woman said that she was satisfied with my determination but wanted an apology. In this particular incident, I agreed because the officer had allowed personal bias to color his actions. The next day I was counseled for telling the officer to apologize. I was told: Police don’t apologize.
I’ve never agreed with that statement.
Police officers are human. We make mistakes like any other human. When someone makes a mistake that harms or offends us, don’t we all want the person to apologize? In today’s polarized climate the ability to acknowledging another’s pain seems essential to bridging the divides between the police and some communities they serve. The character to apologize and genuinely show we understand demonstrates strength and confidence, not weakness.
Policing continues to operate in the shadow of a very dark and not-so-distant past. Police enforced rules from slavery to Jim Crowe, either as active participants or passive enablers. And although there are many who insist that those days are over and we should just stop talking about it, the cumulative effects of the historical injustices—and sometimes crimes—continue to hang over law enforcement like a fog clouding our forward vision.
The actions of others are only a reflection on us personally if we fail to repudiate them in a voice that is loud and clear. We must acknowledge and atone for the past or we can never move forward because silence is consent. What does it hurt to apologize if it will open a dialogue and begin to bridge a gap? Honesty builds trust and we desperately need trust right now.
Leaders like Chief Dekmar understand the value of a sincere apology as the first step toward reconciliation. Not every situation warrants an apology, but there is always room for improvement and concrete gestures of good faith beyond attending a community meeting or a mission statement.
An apology for an injustice nearly 80 years old might seem to some as pointless. I believe it is an important step toward reconciliation for all. It validates African Americans’ history and lifts the silent stigma from the backs of honest cops who want to police justly.
“Some might say ‘forgiveness’?” said a descendant of lynching victim, Austin Callaway, “And I say to you that I believe God when he tells us that there is power and freedom in forgiveness.”
I say there is power and freedom in an apology.