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Obama: Americans Should Not Expect Police to Solve Social Ills

  • VOA News

U.S. President Barack Obama meets members of the audience, including Cameron Sterling (R), son of Alton Sterling who was shot and killed by white police officers in Baton Rouge, after taking part in a televised town hall about trust and safety in our comm

U.S. President Barack Obama meets members of the audience, including Cameron Sterling (R), son of Alton Sterling who was shot and killed by white police officers in Baton Rouge, after taking part in a televised town hall about trust and safety in our comm

U.S. President Barack Obama says the country is expecting too much from police, including answering society's problems. He made the comments Thursday night at a town hall meeting in a Washington theater to discuss the recent spate of racial tensions and police violence that have become a defining mark of his presidency.

He was strongly confronted on issues of racial tensions and police violence several times during the meeting.

Obama has been a reluctant arbiter on race relations, but the country's first African American president is being forced into the position after last week's shootings of black men at point-blank range by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota. Last week also saw the deadly ending in Dallas, Texas, of a peaceful demonstration protesting police violence when a black man with sniper precision killed five police officers and wounded several others.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican who has called Black Lives Matter protesters "hypocrites" after the Dallas shooting, called on the president to do more to support police, including lighting up the White House with blue lights, a reference to blue police uniforms.

In response, Obama said he has been "unequivocal in condemning any rhetoric directed at police officers" and said if Patrick "missed" those messages, the president would be "happy" to send them to him.

The meeting, broadcast on national television, featured appearances by many of the faces of the people affected by last week's fatal confrontations with police.

The site of the meeting was significant. It was held in a theater on Washington D.C.'s 14th street corridor, which was the center of racially fueled rioting in 1968; a passionate reaction to the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

FILE - Law enforcement officer salute Dallas Police Sr. Cpl. Lorne Ahrens before his funeral service at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, July 13, 2016.

FILE - Law enforcement officer salute Dallas Police Sr. Cpl. Lorne Ahrens before his funeral service at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, July 13, 2016.

Victims' families

Another tense encounter was with the daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed last year by police in New York, where he could be heard saying "I can't breathe" as officers wrestled him to the ground. Garner's daughter was screaming near the end of the show after being denied a chance to ask Obama a question. However, she met privately with the president after the show.

Other speakers were gentler. The mother of a Baltimore police officer said her son insists on going out and doing his job even though his safety was in question during last year's Baltimore riots. "How are you supposed to feel?" she asked. "It just seemed like nobody was out there to protect him."

Another mother also spoke: a Baltimore mother who became "internet famous" after a video of her dragging her son out of the Baltimore riots went viral. Toya Graham, whose son stood beside her sporting a natty bow tie, said, "It is so hard to keep them out of harm's way" while trying to hold down a job as a single mother. "I have to work . . . . what can I do?"

Diamond Reynolds, whose video of the aftermath of her boyfriend's fatal shooting by a Minneapolis officer also went viral, appeared by videolink from Minneapolis, having attended her boyfriend's funeral earlier in the day. "When I think about my daughter's future, I'm scared for her," she said. "My question is, how do we as a nation stop what has happened to my family and all the other victims across the world?"

Obama provided no hard and fast answers, but he talked about the importance of building trust in the police force, police involvement in the community, and better resources for communities stressed by poverty, racial tensions, and crime. He also called for fairness in dealing with police officers, as resentment against law enforcement officers has given rise to new violence.

"We expect police to solve a whole range of societal problems that we ourselves have neglected," Obama said. "We have communities without jobs, with substandard schools, where the drug trade is so often considered the only way to make money. Communities that are inundated with guns. Where there's a lack of mental health services or drug treatment services. Then, we say to the police, go deal with that."

Obama said in such cases, it is no wonder police feel unsupported when violence breaks out. He talked about initiatives to improve life for at-risk youths - often a term that is a euphemism used to describe young black men, whose age, race and gender can play a significant role in the way they are treated.

President Obama talks to reporters after a meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, July 13, 2016, about community policing and criminal justice.

President Obama talks to reporters after a meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, July 13, 2016, about community policing and criminal justice.

Personal experience

President Obama noted that, like most young black men, he had times in his youth when he was aware other people perceived him as dangerous. He said he noticed as he was growing up that people would lock their car doors as he crossed the street.

"I sense that what's true for me is true for a lot of African American men: there's a greater presumption of dangerousness that arises from the social and cultural perceptions that have been fed to folks for a long time." He said people of all races must be aware of their assumptions about one another. "That has to be reflected in how we talk about these issues going forward," he said.

Obama also noted the very real consequences being part of the "at-risk" demographic has on young male minorities. "The single greatest cause of death for young black men between [ages] 18 and 35 is homicide, and that's crazy," he said. He said the burden of changing that situation cannot lie on police alone.

"It is going to require investments in those communities," he said. "It is going to require making sure the schools work, having after-school programs. And it is going to require us to look at things like guns and that is tough." He went on to describe how knowing there are guns "washing around" in the community can make a police officer more cautious and a confrontation more likely.

Obama offered no specific solutions, nor did he make any promises. But he sounded a note of hope - in fact, making a joke about it, he called himself "Mr. Hope." He called on all Americans watching to take part in the care of the next generation of Americans, regardless of individual color. "We have an obligation to each and every one of them," he said. "These are our kids and we want an America where they can feel safe."

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