“I’m sorry.” These two little words might be the most difficult for us to say. Yet saying them just might unleash remarkable change.
Confessions: Last week, I spent the weekend with twelve police chiefs and an entire bevy of police officers from across Georgia. Nine different municipalities from around our state participated in the Georgia Police-Community Trust Initiative. Hosted by LaGrange College and the City of LaGrange, Georgia, we had gathered together with these high ranking police representatives as invited members of our respective communities. With all this police presence, I felt very safe. However, according to the poignant confessionsfrom these very Chiefs of Police, the feeling of safety from police presence has not been the case for a large number of our citizens.
Yes, you read me correctly: confessions– from Chiefs of Police. It turns out, openness, honesty and prophetic apologies are emanating out of surprising places in our land these days. Police departments in places like Stockton, California; Birmingham, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, New York City … But it all began in LaGrange, Georgia with a man named Lou Dekmar.
As Chief of Police for LaGrange, he had become aware that his police department had been involved in previous activity that had harmed citizens, specifically African-American citizens. The precipitating event in question was a 1940 lynching of an African-American man of LaGrange. The police should have protected him. They didn’t. They might well have been complicit in his murder. And Chief Dekmar in his research, discovered more tragic stories, cover ups of very bad behavior, and ongoing efforts at intimidation and inciting fear. The police of LaGrange had not been fulfilling their motto “To Protect and to Serve” all citizens equally and fairly.
So Lou Dekmar made a controversial decision. He decided to tell the truth. He wasn’t sure if doing so could repair decades of hurt, loss, degradation and mistrust. But he felt called to try. He would make a public, prophetic apology. He also understood the apology needed to be followed quickly and thoroughly with clear actions designed to reconcile the community, to heal the divisions and to rebuild the shattered trust.
The results have been nothing less than inspirational.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Network For Safe Communities at John Jay College in Manhattan were the co-sponsors of the event I attended. Each of these powerfully influential organizations have jointly concluded the following from Lou Dekmar’s experience and example:
- Honesty is the best policy;
- Confession is good for the soul (and the community!);
- Working together to fulfill the police motto of “Serve and Protect” works best if all citizens feel included in those comforting words.
- Reparations can be vital when they are healing broken trust and repairing
What I saw and heard over our weekend encouraged me in ways that I have rarely felt over this recent decade of divisiveness. African-American citizens from LaGrange spoke at length about their initial skepticism. They first felt that Dekmar’s apology would simply be another example of white folks using words to make them feel better and then returning to the sad, familiar status quo.
As each speaker shared their experience, it became abundantly clear a new trend had taken over the LaGrange community. White folks and Black folks were sharing stories, learning about shared and difficult history, and working together to create a new environment of hope and opportunity for all citizens equally.
Earnest Ward, the president of the Troupe County NAACP shared his experience.
“I’m sixty years old and I never thought I would live to see the day when I could sit at a table with four white males, and they would actually be interested in what I had to say, that they would actually want to hear my opinion. But that day has come.”
As he fought back emotion, he continued: “And these times over the last several years together proved to me that what we were doing was real; that these white members of the community really were serious about making a difference and bringing about change. They have proved to me and to my community that this apology had legs. The actions taken are including all of us; and what we are doing together is building a new future …”
Eric Jones, the Police Chief of Stockton, California spoke on Sunday morning. His words followed a member of one the Citizen Councils he had facilitated as a part of his efforts to tell the truth, to apologize for past actions and to open the process of healing and reconciliation up to all citizens. She had described how valuable her experience had been.
Her brother had been shot by police and their family had never been told why. Four years later, Chief Jones helped her family hear the truth, receive an apology, and be involved in community reconciliation. It was working. She told of how much the process had helped to repair their family wounds, and to allow them to be involved in a broader process of shared healing.
While convening another citizen work group, Jones told us about a woman who shared with the group: “The Stockton Police robbed me of my father.”
He asked her afterwards what her father’s name was so that he could do some research to try to help her. As he shared these words with us, he suddenly stopped. In a long moment of emotion and an inability to speak, he took a sip of water. Then he continued.
“When she said her father’s name, I suddenly realized who she was. And I realized I was the sergeant in charge of the SWAT team the killed her father. I was the one who gave the order for him to be shot.”
It was again a while before he could speak. He looked down; he took another sip of water.
“Since then, she and I have worked together on several community work groups. She has forgiven me. And now we are working to make Stockton a city for all people to live and to thrive.”
Statistics appear to demonstrate the success of these efforts. In Stockton, violent crime is down fifty percent. Property damage is down forty percent. LaGrange has similar success rates, as do other municipalities across the U.S. that have moved towards openness, honesty, respect, humility, and the power of prophetic apologies.
The Hebrew prophets knew this could work. Their roles were not so much to predict the future, but to change the future,to make it more in line with God’s hopes and dreams for us. Police across our nation are learning the power of this biblical truth. The Jewish call to tikkum olam, to “heal the earth” is being awakened in surprising places. These prophetic police apologies are reshaping cities and healing communities. Let’s join them.