President Obama addressed a room full of law enforcement officials in Chicago on Tuesday, emphatically praising the work of cops across the country while calling on them to acknowledge that minorities have legitimate grievances when it comes to racial disparities in arrest rates, sentencing, and incarceration.
“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,” Obama said. And while it’s not fair that video recordings of police misconduct against minorities seem to regularly go viral while instances of good police work don’t make the news at all, 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… don’t just come out of nowhere.”
Speaking as part of the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Obama echoed remarks he made last week at a Marshall Project panel on criminal justice reform, saying there were times before he drove with a motorcade when he would get pulled over and not know why. “Most of the time I got a ticket, I deserved it. But there were times when I didn’t," he said. "There are a lot of African Americans who have that same kind of story. The data shows this is not an aberration. There’s some racial bias in the system.”
Elsewhere in the speech, Obama offered a veiled rebuke to FBI Director James Comey, who stated recently that increases in violent crime in some American cities this year were the result of the increased scrutiny that police officers have been under since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Comey’s comments, which rested on the premise that police officers were shying away from doing proactive street work out of fear of being turned into YouTube sensations, have been seen by some as an attempt to lend credence to the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” though the FBI chief acknowledged he had no data to back up his claims.
Without naming Comey or referencing his comments directly, Obama said in no uncertain terms that talk of a violent crime wave is not borne out by statistics, and that it was important not to “cherry pick data and use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or political agendas”:
We do need to get some facts established. So far the data shows that overall violent crime rates across the nation appear to be nearly as low as they were last year, and significantly lower than they were in previous decades. It is true that in some cities, including here in my hometown of Chicago, gun violence and homicides have spiked. And in some cases they’ve spiked significantly. But the fact is that, so far at least, across the nation, the data shows that we are still enjoying historically low rates of violent crime.
Later, in a direct refutation of the notion that cops around the country were neglecting their duties in response to public scrutiny, Obama added, "I know you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face—that’s part of wearing a badge."
Obama also used the speech as an opportunity to renew his call for sentencing reform—a theme he has been hammering away at over the past several weeks in a series of public events—and make the case for mandatory background checks for people buying guns, arguing that police officers, in addition to law-abiding civilians, would be safer if violent criminals had a harder time purchasing firearms. “It’s just a simple proposition: Cops shouldn’t be out-armed by the criminals they’re pursuing,” he said.