By Jasmine M. Ellis, Harry Huggins, Enrica Nicoli Aldini
and Raquel Zaldivar
President Barack Obama called for wide-ranging reforms in gun control laws and criminal justice policies Tuesday, speaking to an international gathering of law enforcement leaders in Chicago.
“Police officers often see America at its worst,” Obama said. “But I want you to know that in you, we often see America at its best.”
The conference took place near neighborhoods that have made Chicago the focus of national discussions on gun violence.
Obama timed his speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police with the release of a Department of Justice guidebook on reducing crime and improving community trust toward police. The guidebook came from Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the president used much of his speech to outline the recommendations the report made.
Throughout the conference halls, posters and whitewalls displayed personal stories from police officers with the hashtag #WhyIWearTheBadge. The president reflected this pride in policing, highlighting the need to support “the men and women who walk that thin blue line.”
“Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system,” Obama said.
The president listed his priorities for supporting law enforcement, including increased funding to retain and hire more officers, investment in equipment and data sharing to spot crime patterns. He made special mention of a new national network linking police radio spectra.
Obama spoke in a city that has seen more than 2,500 shooting victims in 2015, or more than nine shootings per 10,000 residents. The president said that police know the need for increased gun controls.
“You know that more guns on the streets do not make you or your communities safer,” he said. “Cops should not be out-armed by the criminals they’re pursuing.”
Obama mentioned his old South Side neighborhood, where he said adults are too afraid to discipline misbehaving kids because “you don’t know if they’re armed” and guns are easier to get than it is “to get fresh vegetables at a supermarket.”
The president repeated previous calls for “commonsense gun safety reforms” and background checks.
“I know we won’t all agree on this issue,” Obama said. “But it’s time to be honest. Fewer gun safety laws don’t mean more freedom, they mean more danger.”
Obama noted that lawmakers must support reducing violent crimes by addressing overcrowding in prisons.
“For those who do break the law,” Obama said, “we should take another hard look at whether in all circumstances the punishment fits the crime.”
— Chicago Police Sgt. Larry Snelling
The president praised the Senate’s recent bipartisan measures to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences and offer incentives to inmates that participate in programs to reduce recidivism.
“This is something I don’t get to say very often. I am encouraged by what Congress is doing…work,” Obama said.
The president also stressed the importance of fostering a trusting relationship between police and the communities they serve.
“Our divides are not as deep as some would like to suggest,” Obama said. “I don’t know anyone in the minority community who does not want strong, effective enforcement. Everybody should understand that police officers do a dangerous job. Nobody wants to see police officers hurt.”
Obama lauded a Chicago Police Department program that trains new officers by dropping them off in neighborhoods without cars on their first day.
“Because they knew the communities they were serving,” Obama said, “They were able to distinguish between the drug dealer and the good kid, even if they were both wearing a hoodie.”
Obama also blamed the media — especially cable news and attention-seeking candidates — for perpetuating a public safety storyline of “us” and “them.”
“I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities they serve,” Obama said. “Instead of having debates over talk radio, we have to listen to each other.”
After reminding the audience that he no longer worries about reelection, Obama spoke frankly about racial bias in law enforcement. He said that when he was younger, before he had a motorcade, he would be pulled over without reason.
“When you aggregate all the problems,” Obama said, “you have to say there is some racial bias in the system.”
The president underlined his belief, however, that police safety and racial equality are not mutually exclusive.
“I refuse to believe that the only choice we have is to either ignore circumstances of racial bias or make it impossible for police officers to do their job,” Obama said.
Some police officers who attended the speech echoed Obama’s call for joint efforts between the police and community members to prevent crime.
“The effort to fix society’s crimes can’t be solely on the police,” said Sgt. Larry Snelling of the Chicago Police Department. “We all have to work together as a team, the police, community members, families who need to be able to give kids what they need to not become criminals.”
Constable Ruben Davis, from Missouri City, Texas, said that hiring more minority officers will bring the police closer to certain communities. “You’ve got to convince the people that there’s a trust factor,” he said. “That we want their safety, that they’re protected, and we’re their friends.”