“I’m sorry.” These two little words might be the most difficult to say, even for those who seek to follow the way of Jesus, including what he lived and taught about forgiveness. Yet these two little words also possess the power to unleash remarkable change.
In fact, healing is taking place in amazing ways and in some surprising places in our communities, and churches should take notice. In law enforcement communities in Birmingham and Baton Rouge and in Minneapolis, New York and Stockton, California, “I’m sorry” is being said, confessions are being offered, truth is being told and forgiveness is being bestowed.
That’s right: law enforcement.
This movement began in the little town of LaGrange, Georgia, with a man named Lou Dekmar.
As LaGrange’s chief of police, Dekmar discovered some very troubling information. It turns out, like many police departments around the country, the LaGrange police had done harm to the very citizens it was sworn to protect and serve. The precipitating event was a 1940 lynching of an African-American man. The police should have protected him. Instead, they appeared to be complicit in his murder.
In his research, Chief Dekmar discovered more tragic stories, cover-ups and illicit behavior coupled with ongoing efforts at intimidation and the intentional incitement of fear.
Dekmar decided to tell the truth. He wasn’t sure if doing so could repair decades of hurt, loss, degradation and mistrust. But he wanted to try. He made a public confession, daring to say to the African-American community of Troupe County and LaGrange, “I’m sorry.”
Wisely, he didn’t stop with those two words. He followed quickly and thoroughly with actions to reconcile the community, to heal the divisions and to rebuild the shattered trust. Pastors of the predominantly white churches in LaGrange, public employees and even judges and other members of the county’s judicial system followed Dekmar’s example, stood before the community and confessed, told the truth and apologized.
The results have been nothing less than inspirational.
“‘I realized I was the sergeant in charge of the SWAT team that killed her father.’”
Earnest Ward, president of the Troupe County NAACP, shared his response to Dekmar’s prophetic apology and the ensuing confessions during the recent Georgia Police-Community Trust Initiative I had the honor of attending:
“I’m 60 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.”
Fighting to control his emotions, he continued: “These times over the last several years have 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.”
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 are now co-sponsoring events like the Georgia Police-Community Trust Initiative. My paraphrased conclusions and recommendations that have followed Dekmar’s example sound almost biblical:
- 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 that purpose and promise.
- Reparations can be a vital part of healing broken trust and repairing harm.
What I saw and heard over that weekend encouraged me in ways that I have rarely felt during the past decade of divisiveness in our country. African-American citizens from LaGrange spoke honestly about their initial skepticism. But in sharing their experiences, they were also clear that a new trend was evident in the community. White folks and black folks were sharing stories, learning about a shared and difficult history and working together to create a new environment of hope and opportunity for all citizens equally.
Now, little LaGrange is having an impact across the country.
Eric Jones, police chief of Stockton, California, spoke on a Sunday morning. His words followed a deeply moving presentation by 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 to all citizens.
The previous speaker had described the value of her experience on the council. Her brother had been shot and killed by the police. The family had never been told why or how it happened. Four years later, Chief Jones helped her family hear the truth, receive an apology and then participate in community reconciliation. She described how much the process had helped to repair her family’s wounds and to be involved in a broader process of shared healing.
“She has forgiven me. And now we are working to make Stockton a city for all people to live and to thrive.”
Jones told us about convening another citizen work group where a woman declared emotionally, “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 the account with us, he suddenly stopped. For a long moment he couldn’t speak. He took a sip of water, then 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 that killed her father. I was the one who gave the order for him to be shot.”
He paused again, looked down and 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 50 percent. Property damage is down 40 percent. LaGrange has similar success rates, as do other municipalities across the country 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 God’s people.
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 and the subsequent hard work of reconciliation and repairing relationships are reshaping cities. They are healing communities. They are turning enemies into friends and co-workers.
Our churches would do well to learn from our brothers and sisters in law enforcement and to join and support their efforts. Together, we can heed the prophetic cry to heal the earth – tikkum olam!