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What Should It Sound Like When Police Apologize To Communities Of Color?

Gene J. Puskar
Jonny Gammage Sr., father of Jonny Gammage, leaves Allegheny Courthouse for lunch holding a "Justice For Jonny" t-shirt, with Jonny's aunt Blonirene Seals, left, during the first day of trial Oct. 15, 1996, against two white suburban police officers.

In March 2015, then-Police Chief Cameron McLay committed to working with the U.S. Department of Justice as part of a six-city pilot project to help heal cities’ fractured relationships with communities of color.

Part of that agreement is set to include racial reconciliation training, which asks police and citizens to speak plainly about their issues.

On this week’s episode of 90.5 WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast, host David Harris talked to Aseante Hylick, who has facilitated these conversations across the U.S. through the National Initiative for Community Trust & Justice. She said the first step is an apology made by the police chief for all the harm inflicted by his department in the past.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: Why is racial reconciliation such an important part of police reform?

ASEANTE HYLICK: Let's break it down. The definition of reform is to make changes to something in order to improve it, right? And since race is a historical cornerstone of America's makeup, it means it must be a part of the conversation in order to find a solution. I'm not going to be the it's going to be extremely uncomfortable but it's necessary.

HARRIS: If you don't have that conversation involving race, it's very hard to get to other concrete solutions the racial questions stand in the way.

HYLICK: Absolutely. I feel like that's been part of our problem up until this point. Too often we talk around race and we talk about all the other isms, right? Classism, sexism, ageism. But we don't get into racism. No one wants to feel like a bad person and no one wants to feel like they're you know causing harm to someone else. And when you have to have these tough race conversations that's going to come up. We are in a racialized system.

HARRIS: I could imagine a chief or police officers saying something like, "You know, heck, why should I apologize for what happened even before I was born, let alone before I was on the department? I didn't do those things. We're much different now." How would you respond to that?

HYLICK: We need to make sure that we don't conflate the individual and the system with which the individual is operating. No, the individual may not have caused harm, and yes, this may have happened before an individual officer's time. But when you put on that badge, when you put on that uniform, you represent a system that is connected to historical harm to specific communities.

HARRIS: Conversations about race relations are notoriously difficult. How do you, as a facilitator, make those conversations happen?

HYLICK: You never know what people are walking into the room with. But one thing I can say is I tried to tap into the human experience, and I try to focus on common ground. And by that I mean, for me, as a cisgender heterosexual African-American woman there are issues and experiences that my fellow brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA community, there're things that they go through that I will never understand because that will never be my struggle. That will never be my problem. I will never have to think about that, because that is a privilege that I have. In the same way, me as an African-American woman -- David, there are things that you will never understand about my experiences, what I have to go through as an African-American, what I have to go through as a woman. That's a privilege that you have, right? But we all know what certain emotions feel like. And that's tapping into the human experience. We all know that swirling feeling in the pit of your stomach that vacillates between your stomach and your chest when you are afraid, when you are anxious, when you are worried about something happening to you. We've all experienced fear. So it's tapping into that and saying, "You know that fear that you identified? I feel that when a cop pulls me over. I feel that when my child leaves the house. I feel that when I disclose that I am transgender." You may not be able to understand someone's experience, but you can empathize with their emotion. You have to get people to a space of understanding, identifying, and empathizing with emotions, because from there we can talk to the experience connected to that emotion.

HARRIS: How do you know when you've succeeded?

HYLICK: When nobody has cussed anyone out and no one has left the room, it is a success. Or if they do leave the room, they come back. But how do I know this entire work is a success? You and I won't have this conversation in five years. In 10 years. In 15 years. I won't have a job. That's when I know this is successful.

Hear more from Hylick about how those sessions play out on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, though your favorite podcast app and at