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The violent police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969 is widely regarded as a seminal event in the gay rights movement. But police officials had long refused to admit that officers’ behavior and the raid itself were not justified, leaving a rift between law enforcement and gay-rights supporters that seemed to deepen distrust over the years.
On Thursday, as people around the world began commemorating the 50th anniversary of the clash, New York’s police commissioner took a step toward making amends, issuing an unusual official apology on behalf of the Police Department for the actions of officers during the Stonewall uprising.
“The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong — plain and simple,” the commissioner, James P. O’Neill, said during an event at Police Headquarters.
It was an admission that gay rights leaders said was momentous and unexpected, if overdue.
“To have the N.Y.P.D. commissioner make these very explicit remarks apologizing, it’s really moving,” said Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, who is gay and who had a day earlier called for a police apology.
Still, some cautioned the Police Department that its future actions needed to back up its words.
“The history of police violence and criminalization of L.G.B.T.Q. people sadly continues to this day,” said Richard Saenz, an attorney at Lambda Legal, a national civil rights organization.
Politicians and gay rights leaders had stepped up their calls for Mr. O’Neill to apologize in recent months, urging a public reckoning as New York hosts World Pride, a global gathering that is taking place in the city this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
During a safety briefing related to World Pride at Police Headquarters, the commissioner offered the formal apology that Police Department officials, including Mr. O’Neill himself, had said for years was unnecessary.
“I think it would be irresponsible to go through World Pride month, not to speak of the events at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969,” Mr. O’Neill said. “I do know what happened should not have happened.”
“The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize,” he added.
The auditorium erupted in applause.
The Stonewall uprising began shortly after midnight on June 28, 1969, when officers with the now-defunct Public Morals Squad raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.
The police said they had arrived to disperse the bar’s patrons because the Stonewall Inn had violated liquor laws. Eight officers and an inspector arrived at the club and ordered about 200 people to line up and show their identification. Some were asked to submit to anatomical inspections.
The officers’ behavior that night would quickly become a stain on the department and an electrifying force for the L.G.B.T. movement.
“They came in the bar. They slammed people against the wall. They shoved people, and they hurled insults that you can probably imagine,” said Mark Segal, 68, who participated in the protests that night.
Stonewall patrons, fed up with longstanding harassment at the hands of law enforcement, pushed back.
As officers conducted the raid, a crowd gathered outside, shouting “gay power.” Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who were forced out of the bar that night taunted the police. Some threw bottles and stones.
The ensuing clash lasted for about an hour, but days of street protests followed, resulting in arrests, injuries and property damage.
[For World Pride, The Times wants to capture the spectrum of how people talk about identity. Tell us who you are in 10 words or less.]
Mr. O’Neill’s comments signaled a remarkable moment in the city’s history, a long-awaited acknowledgment of the Police Department’s role in harassing gays in past decades.
In the 1960s, it was common for the police to raid gay bars, arrest cross-dressers and harass customers, often on the pretext of cracking down on prostitution or other organized crime activities.
Over time, the department’s attitudes toward L.G.B.T. people have shifted, but anti-gay attitudes remained rampant in the police force for decades after the Stonewall uprising. In 1978, the president of the city’s largest police union said in an op-ed in The New York Times that having gay police officers was an “unworkable” idea.
As social attitudes and norms changed, so did the Police Department. In a watershed moment in 1982, Sgt. Charles H. Cochrane started the first Gay Officers Action League chapter, an association of gay police officers.
The department now boasts of hundreds of L.G.B.T. officers in its ranks, and since 1996, gay police officers have marched in uniform in New York City’s pride parade — an event that started to commemorate the uprising at Stonewall.
In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. O’Neill proclaimed that times had drastically changed since the raid.
“I vow to the L.G.B.T.Q. community that this would never happen in the N.Y.P.D. in 2019,” Mr. O’Neill said. “We have, and we do, embrace all New Yorkers.”
The Police Department had resisted calls for an apology in the past. In 2016, at a news conference discussing security for that year’s Pride March, William J. Bratton, the commissioner at the time, said he did not believe an apology was necessary.
The following year, a day after the Pride March, Mr. O’Neill also declined to apologize. “I think that’s been addressed already,” he said. “We’re moving forward.”
Still, allegations of bias have persisted in the department.
“A lot more action has to be done to undo the history of discrimination and current N.Y.P.D. practices,” said Tina Luongo, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society.
In 2017, an internal watchdog found that the city’s police officers still lacked proper training in how to interact with L.G.B.T. victims and complainants.
A lawsuit filed in January by a transgender woman accused police officers of ridiculing her during her arrest and charging her with incorrectly filling out her gender on an official form.
Mr. Saenz said that transgender people, especially transgender women of color, were particularly vulnerable to police misconduct.
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement that she believed that police officers in New York continued to harass and abuse transgender people.
“The N.Y.P.D. must commit itself to the true change in practices and policies necessary to address the crisis of violence facing transgender people,” she said.
Even so, she thanked Mr. O’Neill for his apology.
Stacy Lentz, 49, a co-owner of the Stonewall Inn since 2006, called Mr. O’Neill’s remarks a strong first step toward improving relationships between the police and the L.G.B.T. community.
“For the police commissioner to apologize like that — it’s just incredible,” Ms. Lentz said.
But she said there was room for improvement.
“The battle that was started here is not over,” she added. “But today was about visibility, and visibility saves lives.”
Ali Watkins contributed reporting.