NYPD Police Commissioner Apologizes for 1969 Stonewall Raid

Embracing Your History, Warts and All, Beats Waiting for Others to Define Your Heritage   

6/11/19 – – This month New York City is hosting World Pride, an international celebration of LGBTQ rights. More than six million people are expected to participate in this year’s gathering, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of an ugly police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar. Outrage and protest in response to the police department’s actions on that historic evening in June 1969 is credited with giving birth to the gay rights movement.

At a security briefing for the Pride event last week, NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill made some history of his own when he referred to the raid and offered this formal apology: “The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple. The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive and for that I apologize.”  He went on to assure the public that, “The NYPD takes all forms of bias seriously, because we will never tolerate hate of any kind on our city’s communities.”

While it took a half century for the NYPD to do the right thing, the commissioner’s unambiguous apology has received almost universal praise from the public and the media. I believe there is an important lesson for crisis counselors and communicators to learn from the department’s honest embrace of its not-so-perfect past.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), we discuss nine common sources from which crises spring: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy and past. Fair or not, an institution’s past is fertile ground for reputational erosion.

Anticipating intense media coverage of World Pride and the Stonewall anniversary, the commissioner had to be expecting harsh criticism of his department’s past. How was he going to handle the inevitable questions at every Pride press conference? And how were the visitors to his city going to feel about today’s police officers, who do their job with a very different set of beliefs and priorities than the officers who carried out the order to raid the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago?

In a June 11 interview with The New York Times, Commissioner O’Neill said this about his decision to offer an apology: “If we’re going to move forward as a police department and as a city, the past has to be acknowledged.”

Companies and individuals facing shame for something they did in the past can control their own destinies as much as possible by encouraging an open examination of their histories, warts and all. Better that you lead the discussion – as the commissioner did in his briefing – than allow others to dig up the dirt and define your heritage. And it always helps when you can explain how things are different, hopefully better, since the incident in your past occurred. The NYPD can honestly say that while it’s not perfect, important strides have been made within the department since the unfortunate raid to “bring the police and all communities we serve closer together.”

While you can’t change your past, you can take steps to lessen the chances of it drawing you into crisis. The participants in this year’s World Pride celebration should not be expected to forget the actions of the NYPD in Greenwich Village 50 years ago. But thanks to Commissioner O’Neill’s apology, they may be able to feel more welcome in New York and see today’s police officers in a far better light. 


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