Obama urges federal support for police at law enforcement conference in Chicago


Lauren Duquette/The Daily Northwestern

President Barack Obama addresses the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago on Tuesday. Obama defended police officers and their work amid the national debate surrounding officers’ use of force.

Julia Jacobs, City Editor

CHICAGO — President Barack Obama on Tuesday highlighted the need to restore trust between police officers and communities amid spikes of violent crime in many urban areas.

The president addressed a packed ballroom of law enforcement officials at an annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He urged federal action on criminal justice and gun safety reform to better protect police officers and communities in the country.

“I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities that they serve,” Obama said. “I reject a storyline that says when it comes to public safety, there’s an us and a them.”

In Evanston, two of this year’s three gun-related homicides occurred about two weeks apart, prompting concern in the community over violence in the city. Police responded to the shootings by launching an anti-violence program aimed at recovering firearms off the street by engaging officers with the community.

Evanston police deputy chief Jay Parrott, who attended the president’s address, said the city’s police engagement with the community has been bolstered in recent years, especially among officers and faith-based organizations as well as mentoring programs.

“If residents get to know officers on more personal basis, that is going to build trust between the community and the department,” Parrott told The Daily.

Obama pledged to the gathering of officers to continue to support them with federal resources, including funds to provide police departments with equipment such as bullet proof vests, new technology to detect crime patterns and a single radio network for departments across the country. The budget he released in February proposes dedicating nearly $1oo million to expand training and oversight for local law enforcement.

“It’s time more folks in Washington started to value our cops, not just give lip service to them,” he said.

Although the president cited media sensationalism as leading to negative perception of police in the U.S., he also said claims of racial bias in law enforcement are not unfounded. But Obama said eliminating bias is not something that falls on the police alone but requires officers to have the resources they need to ensure their force operates fairly.

Obama called for action in March to change police practices across the country in the aftermath of the deaths of two unarmed black men by white officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. The president’s statement followed a report from a White House task force which recommended independent criminal investigations in use-of-force cases resulting in injury or death and data collection of shooting and deaths by police.

“When an individual officer does display bias or excessive force … we’ve got to have departments to honestly and fairly address it and not just simply close ranks or stand down,” Obama said at the conference. “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.”

Despite jabs at Congress for inaction on gun safety reform, Obama applauded the Senate for moving forward a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill last week that includes provisions to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Obama said law enforcement too often gets scapegoated for increasing crime rates in some cities, when issues that perpetuate such crime — such as substandard education and a lack of job opportunities — are out of their control.

“We can’t expect you to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about,” Obama said. “If we’re serious about protecting our communities and protecting our police departments, then let’s invest in more opportunities, let’s try to stop more crime before it starts.”

The president said violent crime is also preventable with stricter gun laws ensuring weapons don’t get in the hands of criminals. Having met with families Tuesday afternoon of police officers killed on duty, Obama urged his audience to understand that gun restrictions can help keep police safer.

“Fewer gun safety laws don’t mean more freedom, they mean more danger — certainly more danger to police,” he said.

As an example of cooperation between police and the community, Obama cited the story of an Alabama police officer who responded to a woman’s theft of three eggs to feed her grandchildren by buying her a carton of eggs using his own money. The president said in an effort to reduce crime and violence, officers must build trust with the community before a crisis erupts.

“Police officers so often see America at its worst,” he said. “In you, we often see America at its best.”

This story was updated at 1:28 a.m.

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