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Obama Looks to Bridge Divide Between Police, Communities

  • Mary Alice Salinas

US President Barack Obama pauses speaks during an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.

US President Barack Obama pauses speaks during an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center on July 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.

A day after insisting the United States is not divided as some claim, President Barack Obama is bringing together law enforcement officials, civil rights leaders, activists and political leaders to discuss ways to restore trust in communities where there are tensions between police and the residents they are sworn to protect.

Wednesday's meeting at the White House follows his remarks at a memorial service for five slain police officers in Dallas, where he said violence during the past week has exposed "the deepest fault line in our democracy."

Last week's attack on Dallas police by a black Army veteran who was angry over police killings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota intensified a national debate over racial bias in law enforcement.

In remarks that ranged from the dedication of law enforcement officers to racial bias in America, Obama said he understood that people across Dallas and the country are suffering.

The president honored the five slain officers and called for unity and hope.

"I understand how Americans are feeling, but Dallas, I'm here to say we must reject such despair," Obama said.

WATCH: President Obama, Former President George W. Bush address Dallas memorial service

He urged the nation to speak "honestly and openly" about the current state of race relations, saying an overwhelming number of police officers is "worthy of our respect, not our scorn."

Although race relations have improved dramatically in America in recent decades, he added, "America, we know bias remains, we know it."

Five seats were left empty to represent each of the fallen officers during a crowded and emotional memorial at the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.

‘Hatred and malice’

"They were peacemakers in blue; they have died for that cause," proclaimed Mayor Mike Rawlings. "The soul of our city was pierced when police officers were ambushed in a cowardly attack." He added, "Today must be about unity."

Among the tributes honoring Dallas shooting victim outside Dallas police headquarters, a sign urges the country to “Stop the madness,” July 11, 2016. (M. O'Sullivan/VOA)

Among the tributes honoring Dallas shooting victim outside Dallas police headquarters, a sign urges the country to “Stop the madness,” July 11, 2016. (M. O'Sullivan/VOA)

Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's predecessor, former President George W. Bush, also attended the memorial.

Bush condemned the "hatred and malice" behind the attack and called for unity, hope and tolerance in its wake. The former president urged Americans to "honor the images of God we see in one another."

Before the memorial, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Obama believes America must both fully support police officers and acknowledge "the reality of racial disparities" that exist in America.

The White House said the president is interested in comforting people across the nation after emotionally charged events in recent days, including the separate shooting deaths in Baton Rouge and St. Paul.

From conversation to action

While traveling to Dallas, Obama telephoned the families of both men killed by police, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, to offer condolences on behalf of the American people.

Honor guard carry portraits of fallen officers during a candlelight vigil at City Hall, July 11, 2016, in Dallas.

Honor guard carry portraits of fallen officers during a candlelight vigil at City Hall, July 11, 2016, in Dallas.

"These are legitimate concerns raised by all sides of the issues," Earnest said. "The president is interested in trying to push that conversation into concrete action," he added.

"The conversation is taking place in the context where it has often been painted, unfairly I think, as being hostile to law enforcement," said Aderson Francois, Georgetown University School of Law. "But I think this conversation is an important one, and I think he's the best person in the position to do it."

The fatal shootings were captured on video and sparked protests across the nation, and charges that white police officers unfairly target minorities.

On Wednesday, Obama will meet with law enforcement officials, civil rights leaders, activists, academics and political leaders from across the country to discuss ways to restore trust in communities where tension exists between law enforcement officials and residents they are sworn to protect.

The sniper, Micah Johnson, killed the police officers during a rally by the Black Lives Matter, a grass-roots movement trying to pressure political leaders to take action on police brutality and criminal justice reform.

WATCH: Protests show increasing frustration with violence, authority

The president has strongly condemned the use of violence during demonstrations, but he has expressed sympathy for their cause.

"I think the president has been very, very clear on a number of occasions about his support for the Black Lives Matter movement," Francois said. "Yes, there are times when he's challenged their tactics, but at the end of the day, he's always been very clear that he's in support of the ultimate goal."

Investigators are looking into Johnson's background. The Army reserve veteran died when police used a robot armed with explosives against him.

"We're convinced that this suspect had other plans, and thought that what he was doing was righteous and believed that he was going to target law enforcement, make us pay for what he saw as law enforcement's efforts to punish people of color," said Dallas police chief David Brown.

Bomb-making materials and a rambling journal were found at Johnson's home during a search.

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