President Barack Obama is defending police officers who have come under intense scrutiny amid a breakdown in relations between law enforcement and minority communities, and says police can’t be expected to contain problems the rest of society refuses to face.
Obama was traveling Tuesday to Chicago to address the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which is meeting in the president’s hometown. In excerpts of his prepared remarks released by the White House, Obama said society expects police to control societal ills stemming from unemployment, substandard 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 said. “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 took shape following 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 on Tuesday, Obama sought 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 made by his FBI director, James Comey, who said last week 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 told reporters traveling with Obama that while crime has spiked in some places, it’s decreased 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 said.
Obama’s speech to police chiefs aims to bolster his case for fairer sentencing laws, part of a broader push by the president for a more effective criminal justice system. In his prepared remarks, 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 planned to discuss 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.”