CANBERRA, Australia — An Australian state police chief on Thursday made an historic apology to indigenous people who are overrepresented in prisons and vowed to improve race relations.
Western Australia Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said police were key participants in past wrongs against indigenous people in the state over decades, including enforcing government policies of removing mixed-race children from Aboriginal families until the 1970s. The children are known as the Stolen Generations. Many were institutionalized, abused and neglected.
"Some of the comments I'll be making shortly are confronting and may make some people feel uncomfortable, but I understand that truth-telling is an important part of enabling and facilitating change," Dawson said in a speech at police headquarters in Perth.
"And so today, on behalf of the Western Australian Police Force, I would like to say 'sorry' to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for our participation in past wrongful actions that have caused immeasurable pain and suffering," he added.
The apology surprised some indigenous leaders but was widely welcomed.
Western Australia has the second-highest proportion of indigenous Australians after the Northern Territory. Indigenous Australians make up only 3 percent of the national population, but 25 percent of Australia's prison population.
Dawson said the history of conflict between the indigenous population and police included removing children from communities, tribes from their land, violence, racism and incarceration.
"I accept that previous laws, practices and policies deeply affected the lives of Aboriginal people and that police involvement in historical events has led to mistrust in law enforcement and the damaging of our relationship," Dawson said.
"From this day forward and in my time as police commissioner, I will take steps to heal historical wounds between police and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," he added.
Dawson said race relations were improving. Since police introduced an Aboriginal cadet program in 2016, five cadets had become sworn police officers.
The state now had an indigenous-run police station in the Outback Aboriginal community of Warakuma, where the crime rate was falling, he said.
Dawson said an Aboriginal elder in the town of Wyndham told him last week that "Aboriginal children are now running toward police as their friend and protector rather than running away."
"I'm optimistic about a more positive future but today, we're deeply sorry," he said.
Aboriginal advocate Mervyn Eades said he hoped the apology paved the way for improved relations between the police and indigenous people.
"I'm really surprised because of the culture that has been around in the police force for a long time, but ... it is a way forward and it's a great step forward so we can build these relationships," Eades told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia chief executive Dennis Eggington said the apology was a brave and positive step toward improving relations.
"Commissioner Dawson is smart enough to know that we're overrepresented in the justice system not because we're more criminal, but because of social manipulation, discrimination and not having proper relationships which we should have had from very early days," Eggington said