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Head of U.S. police chiefs group apologizes for 'mistreatment of communities of colour'

The president of one of the largest police organizations in the United States on Monday apologized for historical mistreatment of minorities, calling it a "dark side of our shared history" that must be acknowledged and overcome.

Terrence Cunningham of IACP says 'it is clear that we must change the future'

People hold signs during a protest in front of the El Cajon Police Department in El Cajon, Calif., on Sept. 28 following the fatal shooting of Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

The president of one of the largest police organizations in the United States on Monday apologized for historical mistreatment of minorities, calling it a "dark side of our shared history" that must be acknowledged and overcome.

The reaction from leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement was mixed, saying words needed to be backed by actions, while the head of an officers' union in Minnesota said there was no need to apologize.

Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said at the group's annual conference that police have historically been a face of oppression, enforcing laws that ensured legalized discrimination and denial of basic rights. He was not more specific.

Cunningham said today's officers are not to blame for past injustices. He did not speak in detail about modern policing, but said events over the past several years have undermined public trust.

His comments come as police shootings of black men have roiled communities in Ferguson, Mo.; Baton Rouge, La.; and suburban St. Paul, Minn.; and as black shooters have targeted officers in Dallas, the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin and Baton Rouge.

"While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future," Cunningham said. "We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.

"For our part, the first step in this process is for law enforcement and the [International Association of Chiefs of Police] 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 colour," he said.

Cunningham received a standing ovation for his remarks before he introduced U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who largely avoided the topic.

He has been police chief since 1999 in his hometown of Wellesley, Mass., an affluent, overwhelmingly white, low-crime suburb near Boston. He served three years as vice-president of the police chiefs association before becoming president in 2015 for a one-year term.

David Alexander III, police chief in Pensacola, Fla., said recognizing historical injustices is key to addressing race relations, just as acknowledging domestic violence was a step forward.

"When you don't know the history and you say, 'Well, there is no problem,' then you pretty much present yourself as insensitive to the issues," said Alexander, who is black. "The issue of racial tension has been a part of American history since its settlement."

'I think it's an asinine statement'

Delrish Moss, who has been police chief of Ferguson, Mo., since May and is black, said he had negative encounters with police when he was growing up, including being called racial epithets.

"There are communities that have long perceived us as oppressors, there are communities that have long perceived us as the jackbooted arm of government designed to keep people under control, and that's one of the things we have to work hard to get past," Moss said. "I'm glad it's being addressed ... because the only way to get past it is to first acknowledge the existence of it."

Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement were less enthusiastic.

The president of one of the largest police organizations in the United States, Terrence Cunningham, apologized Monday for historical mistreatment of minorities, calling it a "dark side of our shared history' to be be acknowledged and overcome. T (Elliot Spagat/The Associated Press)

Campaign Zero co-founder DeRay Mckesson said he looked forward to Cunningham's comments being backed up by deep, structural changes to policing and the criminal justice system.

Charlene Carruthers, national director for Chicago-based BYP100, said an apology didn't go far enough. She said a major step would be taking financial resources away from law enforcement and redirecting them to community-based programs.

Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, thought Cunningham's statement went too far. In his city, two white officers fatally shot a black man last November.

"Our profession is under attack right now and what we don't need is chiefs like him perpetuating that we are all bad guys in law enforcement," Kroll said. "I think it's an asinine statement. ... We've got officers dying on almost a daily basis now because of this environment, and statements like that don't help."

Garland Pruitt, president of the NAACP's Oklahoma City branch, said the apology was "way overdue." A 40-year-old unarmed black man was fatally shot by a Tulsa officer last month.

"It lets folks know there is a thing called compassion," Pruitt said.

On Sunday, FBI director James Comey addressed the conference. Comey said dramatic videos of deadly law enforcement encounters and the absence of reliable data about how often police use force contribute to a regrettable narrative that "biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates."

"It is a narrative driven by video images of real and gut-wrenching misconduct, by images of possible misconduct, by images of perceived misconduct," he said. 

The FBI is pressing ahead with plans for a national database to track information about police use of force, Justice Department officials announced last week.

"We need to collect actual, accurate and complete information about policing in this country so that we have informed debates about things that matter enormously," Comey said.

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