A protester holds a sign in La Mesa in May 2020. Photo by Ken Stone

How should serious grievances between the police and civilians be addressed? Should we defund the police? Should we remove police from institutions like schools? Should we prosecute police officers for actions they take while on duty?

These types of ideas may be appropriate in certain situations but it is important to consider the motivations behind any such efforts.  We must be cautious before adopting an approach motivated by retaliation and revenge. 

Revenge continues the cycles of violence, distrust, and lack of respect. Alternatively, an approach based on forgiveness and reconciliation is more likely to promote healing and peace, and such a process can be integrated into our justice system.

The power of forgiveness and reconciliation can be seen in what took place during Nelson Mandela’s presidency in post-apartheid South Africa with work done through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, when both perpetrators and victims were helped in their efforts to seek forgiveness and grant pardons, and in some locations live in the same communities with each other again. This type of process heals and empowers in a way revenge never could.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu outlined a way to leave what they call the “revenge cycle” and replace it with the “forgiveness cycle. Forgiveness with an eye toward reconciliation focuses on improving the relationship. It begins with recognizing that injuries are complex.

Resentment is often felt by both victims and perpetrators and comes with a big price, emotionally and physically. Victims and perpetrators need a process to help them recognize how to reconcile and provide them a way forward.  They need a way to express and name the hurt that has occurred. They need a process that allows them to let go of the bad acts in a healthy and productive way.

Nothing is forgotten, but we can accept that these things happened and integrate them into our new life. Finally, realistic expectations need to be set to allow people to reorganize and reinvest in their future relationships. Things do not go back to the way they were but there is a new relationship forged going forward.

To harness the empowerment in forgiveness we first must choose to heal rather than give in to the desire for revenge or retaliation. After choosing to heal, all must be allowed to tell their story, completely and with all its complexity. This can be done by expanding the time frame from the individual acts that caused the harm and going back farther into the history of societal movements and the individual histories of the people involved. We look to create an environment of shared responsibility where even the perpetrators are humanized.

History shows time and again the dangers of dehumanizing those we disagree with. We need look no further than the Holocaust or any of the many genocides, past and present. One of the aims with the forgiveness and reconciliation process is to engender compassion for the pain of being a perpetrator (yes there is pain in being a perpetrator).

In the current controversy focusing on police, we must realize that there are perpetrators among both the police and civilians. When those involved successfully learn the complex histories of each other, forgiveness allows the relationship to move forward in peace. 

What does this look like in practice? A simplistic framework could involve setting up meetings between the police and civilians who have been hurt, physically or otherwise. A trained facilitator would lead the process and make clear that this is a safe space. The facilitator could meet with the parties separately before the joint meeting to go over the process and help prepare the participants and set expectations.

At the joint meetings, when possible, the civilians and police would be encouraged to sit across from the people who hurt them and to listen to each other — really listen and get to know each other’s stories. If appropriate, these meetings should be public, where members of the community at large are allowed to listen and even participate.

No one should be forced to participate and it may take several meetings before feelings begin to change. The participants would be encouraged and helped to name their hurt. It is an important part of their history and deserves special recognition. 

Concurrent with these meetings, independent investigations into the crimes and acts of injustice should also take place. Ideally, those who participate and fully tell their story (both civilians and police) would be immune from prosecution or retaliation of any kind. If full immunity cannot be granted, some form of partial immunity or leniency in charging or sentencing should be assured in the event of prosecution, for both police and civilians. We look for a balance to incentivize participation while appealing to mercy without robbing justice. 

Once a participant is ready to forgive, that person should be asked to write a statement expressing their forgiveness and to sign it. Local governments can open an official registry for this purpose and make it public. There is power in such commitment and consistency.

Writing a forgiveness statement and signing it shows a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. Making it public helps maintain consistency with that commitment. It also encourages others to do likewise. The participants should also be allowed to express how they believe things could change going forward. 

This type of process would benefit greatly from government approval. It can come in the form of pilot programs to test and develop how to integrate this process into our current justice system.

It is time for us to heal and work toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Only then can we truly move forward together in peace.

Adam Noakes is an administrative law judge living in San Diego. He has a law degree from UCLA and a master’s of law degree from Pepperdine University’s Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution.

Show comments