Obama speaks before police chiefs: says cops get ‘scapegoated’ for broader societal failings

Speaking before the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago on Tuesday, President Barack Obama gave a wide-ranging speech touching on the issues of criminal justice reform, distrust between cops and communities of color, gun control, law enforcement funding, the drug trade, police brutality and viral videos.

At points in the speech, Obama made attempts to soften criticism of American law enforcement, but in an unexpected way, blaming, in essence, the combined problems of economic inequality (while not using the term) and racism, and saying that cops get “scapegoated” for larger societal failings.

While not denying that police misbehave, oftentimes with brutal — and deadly — consequences, and disproportionally in disadvantaged communities of color, the president said that law enforcement is too often unfairly thrust into the role of maintaining order in communities where people have been so economically and socially marginalized that they’ve lost all hope and trust in the system. 

“Now, this is not an easy conversation to have,” Obama said. “First of all, we all care about keeping crime rates low. And things have been working and so a lot of folks say, ‘What’s the problem?’ But for generations, we’ve had African-American and Latino communities who have pointed to racial disparities in the application of criminal justice, from arrest rates to sentencing to incarceration rates. And all too often these concerns, no matter how well documented, have been brushed aside. And we can’t have a situation in which a big chunk of the population feels like maybe the system isn’t working as well for them.”

“At the same time,” he said, “too often law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and our criminal justice system. And I know you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face. That’s part of wearing a badge. But we can’t expect you to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about — problems ranging from substandard education to a shortage of jobs and opportunity, an absence of drug treatment programs, and laws that result in it being easier in too many neighborhoods for a young person to purchase a gun than a book.”

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The president continued: "So if we’re serious about protecting our communities and supporting our police departments, then let’s invest in more opportunity, and let’s try to stop more crime before it starts. Let’s go after the racial disparities at the root."​

"One study found that for every dollar we invest in pre-K — in universal pre-K, early childhood education — we save at least twice that down the road in reduced crime," he said. "Getting a teenager a job for the summer may cost some money, but it costs a fraction of what it will cost to lock him up for 15 years. It’s not enough to tell our young people that crime doesn’t pay if they have no prospects at all. We’ve got to make sure they grow up knowing that hard work and responsibility pay off and that they’ve got other paths available to them."

Later on in the speech, the president broached the topic of police brutality and viral videos. 

“With today’s technology, if just one of your officers does something irresponsible, the whole world knows about it moments later,” he said. “And the countless incidents of effective police work never rarely make it on the evening news.”

Obama continued: “So it’s important for us not to just pounce and jump on anything that happens and immediately just draw conclusions. We’ve got to resist the false trap that says either there should be no accountability for police, or that every police officer is suspect no matter what they do. Neither of those things can be right. It’s on all of us to let investigations uncover facts; to make sure that stories of misconduct aren’t spread before we know the facts, and that they’re not the only stories that we share. Because, as I said before, every day your officers aren’t just stopping crimes, they’re responding to emergencies, and protecting victims of domestic violence, and volunteering to coach Little League and refereeing pickup games. Those stories need to go viral, as well.”

“But,” he added, “you know as well as I do that the tensions in some communities, the feeling that law enforcement isn’t always applied fairly, those sentiments don’t just come out of nowhere. There is a long history here in this country. It’s not something that any individual person here is responsible for, but we all have a responsibility to do something about it because it’s part of our legacy.”

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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