President Barack Obama on Thursday forcefully condemned the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men fatally shot by police officers this week, lamenting that “we have seen tragedies like this too many times.”
In a previously unannounced speech made just after he landed in Warsaw, Poland, to attend Friday’s NATO summit, Obama was visibly frustrated and implored communities and lawmakers to enact reforms.
“Change has been too slow, and we have to have a greater sense of urgency about this,” he said.
“All of us as Americans should be troubled,” he continued. “These are not isolated incidents. They are systematic of a broader set of disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
“When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels that because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts. That should trouble all of us. This is not a black issue. This is not a Hispanic issue. It’s an American issue.”
The two incidents of black men shot and killed by police in one week have sparked protest and renewed calls for reforming police use of force and racial injustices in law enforcement. Both shootings were captured on video by eyewitnesses and quickly made headlines.
Early Tuesday morning, Sterling was shot in the chest and back by Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers. The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Sterling’s death.
On Wednesday, a police officer shot Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul.
Sterling and Castile were among at least 136 black people killed by police this year, according to The Counted, a database from The Guardian that tracks police killings.
“Data shows that black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents,” Obama said.
He condemned critics of the Black Lives Matter movement, who often dismiss their protests as “political correctness.”
“This isn’t a matter of us comparing the value of lives. This is recognizing that there’s a particular burden that is being placed on a group of our fellow citizens and we should care about that,” he said. “We can’t dismiss it. We can’t dismiss it.”
Obama asked those critics to understand the grief of losing a loved one to police violence.
“What if this happened to someone in your family? How would you feel?” he asked. “To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness. It’s just being an American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.”
Obama emphasized the need for unity and stressed that supporting criminal justice reform should not be viewed as an attack against law enforcement. He said he recognizes that police officers “have a dangerous job” and “make split-second decisions.”
“To be concerned about these issues is not to be against law enforcement,” he said.
Obama called on Americans to urge their local police departments to implement the reforms suggested by a task force he commissioned last year to examine the use of force by police officers. He also lauded bipartisan legislation in Congress on criminal justice reform. But he stressed that the repeated incidents over the last few years have indicated a greater need for action.
“When we see data that indicates disparities in the way African-Americans and Latinos are treated, it is incumbent on all of us to say, ‘We can do better than this. We are better than this,’” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden similarly condemned the incidents on Twitter, calling for action.
Obama’s address follows a lengthy statement he posted on Facebook earlier on Thursday, saying that “all Americans should be deeply troubled by the fatal shootings.”
“To admit we’ve got a serious problem in no way contradicts our respect and appreciation for the vast majority of police officers who put their lives on the line to protect us every single day,” Obama said. “It is to say that, as a nation, we can and must do better to institute the best practices that reduce the appearance or reality of racial bias in law enforcement.”