President Obama walked a fine line during the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference Tuesday in Chicago. During his speech at the event, Obama seemed determined not to take sides between police and advocates for criminal justice reform.
“I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities they serve; that frames any discussion of public safety around ‘us’ and ‘them’–a narrative that too often gets served up to us by cable news seeking ratings, tweets seeking retweets, or political candidates seeking some attention,” Obama told the gathering of law enforcement officials.
He also thanked the men and women in blue for their service, saying their work makes the United States safer and should be a source of pride for Americans.
While he expressed gratitude to police officers, the president also noted that honoring their service does not mean the public shouldn’t speak openly about criminal justice reform. The president, for example, has advocated for an end to sentencing disparities for certain drug offenses.
Obama’s comments come after FBI director James Comey sparked controversy last week by suggesting police are too fearful to do their jobs due to the scrutiny they’re under after several high-profile police killings, especially those of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City last year.
“I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars,” Comey recently remarked at the University of Chicago. “They told me, ‘We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.’ ”
It’s difficult to understand why police officers who are properly performing their duties would fear cameras from the public. While it’s certainly no fun to be taunted, the camera phones the hecklers have only come into play if they record a police officer acting inappropriately or illegally. Law-abiding police officers have nothing to worry about, but Comey failed to address this, instead framing youth as the enemy in an attempt to shore up sympathy for law enforcement.
The White House distanced itself from Comey’s comments, stating the “available body of evidence does not support the notion that law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from doing their jobs.”
But during the police chiefs’ conference, Obama made a point to call on communities of color not to peg all officers as the enemy. At the same time, he asked police officers not to ignore the concerns that have been raised about their performance.
“You know as well as I do the tensions in some communities… those sentiments don’t just come out of nowhere,” Obama said. “There’s a long history here in this country… but we all have a responsibility to do something about it.”
Tensions between police and communities of color weren’t the sole focus of the president’s speech. He discussed the deadly shooting sprees that continue to terrorize American communities at random.
“I refuse to accept the notion that we couldn’t have prevented some of those murders, and suicides, and kept more families whole if we had passed some common sense laws,” the president remarked. “Fewer gun safety laws don’t mean more freedom, they mean more danger, more fallen officers. More Americans terrified that their families could be next.”
He pointed out that Americans have a much higher chance of being killed as a result of gun violence than as a result of terrorism. While fewer than 100 Americans have died on U.S. soil from acts of terror since the 9/11 attacks, a staggering 400,000 Americans have died from gun violence over the past 14 years.
“That’s like losing the entire population of Cleveland or Minneapolis over the past 14 years,” he said.