CHICAGO (AP) – President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended police officers who have come under intense scrutiny amid a breakdown in relations between law enforcement and minority communities, and said police can’t be expected to contain problems that society refuses to solve.
In remarks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, meeting in the president’s Chicago hometown, Obama said society wrongly expects police to control societal ills stemming from unemployment, poor education, inadequate drug treatment programs and lenient gun laws.
“Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system,” Obama told police chiefs from around the U.S. and the world. “I know that you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face. That’s part of wearing the badge.”
Obama’s tribute to police comes amid a national debate that followed the deaths of unarmed black men in Florida, Missouri and elsewhere, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, Obama defended Black Lives Matter and said its activists are illuminating a legitimate issue that black communities face. But he sought Tuesday to avoid making it about police versus their communities.
“I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities they serve – that frames any discussion of public safety around ‘us’ and ‘them,'” Obama said. “A narrative that too often gets served up to us by cable news seeking ratings, tweets seeking retweets, or political candidates seeking some attention.”
Yet the president’s show of support for police came as the White House sought to distance Obama from comments by his FBI director, James Comey, who in recent days has said that that police anxiety over cellphone cameras and viral videos partly explains why violent crime has climbed recently in several large U.S. cities. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said crime has spiked in some places and declined in others.
“The available body of evidence does not support the notion that law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from doing their job,” Schultz told reporters traveling with Obama.
Obama also argued for fairer sentencing laws, part of a broader push by the president for a more effective criminal justice system. Obama said he has no sympathy for violent offenders and has seen the havoc wreaked by drugs. But he said American prisons are packed with non-violent offenders and that it’s possible to fight the drug trade “without relying solely on incarceration.”
Following this month’s deadly shooting at an Oregon community college, the president also used to appearance to push for new steps to reduce gun violence, such as requiring background checks for every firearms purchase. The police chiefs’ association supports such checks.
“Fewer gun safety laws don’t mean more freedom, they mean more fallen officers,” Obama said. “They mean more grieving families, and more Americans terrified that they or their loved ones could be next.”
Obama opened his speech with a tribute to slain New York City police officer Randolph Holder as hundreds of fellow officers attended his wake in Manhattan. Holder, 33, died last week after being shot in the head by a man he and his partner were chasing. They had responded to a call of shots fired and a bicycle stolen at gunpoint. A suspect is in custody on charges of murder and robbery in Holder’s killing.
Obama praised the Guyana native as emblematic of many U.S. police officers who risk their lives daily in the line of duty.
“He ran toward danger because he was a cop,” Obama said.