By Steve Musal
President Barack Obama, addressing the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Chicago today, focused on the need to support and reform law enforcement and ended his speech with a call for tougher gun laws.
“I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and the communities they serve,” Obama said. “I reject a storyline that says when it comes to public safety there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ ”
His remarks closely mirrored a preceding panel of civil rights leaders and police officials, who also talked about the need for more conversations around police-community relations.
“I am confident that in this debate people of goodwill can and should find common ground,” Obama said. “We work together best when we’re willing to understand one another.”
The president’s speech at McCormick Place has particular relevance here in Chicago, where the number of shooting victims so far in 2015 is set to eclipse 2014, according to a Chicago Tribune shooting victims database.
The president said he wanted to focus on three things in his speech:
- Making sure officers have resources to fight crime.
- Reforming the criminal justice system to be smarter and more fair.
- Reducing risk to officers in the field with “common-sense gun safety reforms.”
He repeatedly stressed the need for training, both for officer and community safety.
The president also discussed his proposal to Congress to continue funding the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, which released a report today regarding improving police and community relationships.
Overall reform for the criminal justice system, especially as regards communities of color, is also on Obama’s agenda.
“We can’t have a situation where a big chunk of the population feels the system isn’t working for them,” the president said. “At the same time, we can’t have a situation where law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of society and our criminal justice system.”
The president said his long-term goal is to target the racial and economic disparities which lead to crime, and boost social programs to deal with those disparities at the root.
“It’s not enough to tell our young people that crime doesn’t pay if they’ve got no prospects at all.” he said.
Reforming the criminal justice system, the president said, also means addressing overcrowded prisons and reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
“It is possible for us to come up with strategies that effectively reduce the damage of the drug trade without relying solely on incarceration,” Obama said.
Addressing violence between police and civilians, the president said the public tends to focus on police misconduct, but the feeling in many communities that law enforcement is not applied fairly did not just come out of nowhere. The racial disparity in law enforcement, he said, is a very real conversation that the country needs to have.
“The data shows that this is not an aberration,” Obama said.
Building understanding and relationships with communities — before a crime takes place or a crisis erupts — is the key to safety for both police and the public, Obama said.
“I refuse to believe that the only choice that we have is to ignore circumstances of racial bias or make it impossible for police officers to do their job,” he said. “We’ve got to reject that false choice.”
The president’s final point, gun control, received wide applause, possibly because Obama spoke in terms of the danger to police officers.
“It’s risky enough responding to a domestic violence call or a burglary in progress without having to wonder if the suspect is armed to the teeth, maybe has better weapons than you do,” Obama said. “The fact is that in states with high gun ownership, police officers are three times more likely to be murdered than in states with low gun ownership.”
Defending his point against those who’ve used Chicago’s spike in gun violence to criticize gun safety reforms, the president pointed to a recent report from the Chicago Police Department that said 60 percent of guns used in crimes come from out of state.
“It is easier in some communities to find a gun than it is to find some fresh vegetables at the supermarket,” Obama said.
“About 400,000 Americans have been shot and killed by guns since 9/11,” the president continued. “That’s like losing the entire population of Cleveland or Minneapolis over the past 14 years, and I refuse to accept the notion that we couldn’t have prevented some of those murders, some of those suicides, kept more families whole, protected more officers, if we had passed some common-sense laws.”