Obama To Try Selling Police Chiefs On Justice Reform, Gun Measures

Speech comes after White House distanced itself from FBI director's comments on "Ferguson effect."

CHICAGO -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday will address an audience full of police chiefs here, and a White House official said he plans to praise law enforcement officers for their sacrifices and make the case for criminal justice reform and "commonsense" gun control as a way to keep officers safe.

The crowd at the International Association of Chiefs of Police will include many law enforcement leaders who are skeptical of Obama and his criminal justice reform efforts. Obama's speech will mark the first time in over 20 years that a sitting president has addressed the IACP, according to its president, Richard M. Beary.

Obama's remarks will come the day after the White House distanced itself from remarks made by FBI Director James Comey at IACP. Comey on Monday seemed to endorse the so-called "Ferguson effect," the notion that crime has gone up because criminals are emboldened by demonstrations against law enforcement and that police officers are changing their behavior because they fear being caught in a viral video. Many civil rights and law enforcement leaders have pushed back at the theory because it can suggest peaceful protesters are somehow to blame for violent crime, or that scrutiny of the actions of law enforcement is somehow a bad thing.

After Comey's speech, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said there's no evidence that "law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities." A group of police chiefs who were pushing for universal background checks at a press conference at IACP also indicated that viral videos weren't affecting the work of their officers.

"My officers are working, I absolutely know that," said Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy, one of the chiefs pushing for criminal justice reform. "I don't think officers are cutting down on their enforcement. How could it possibly be if they're taking more guns off the streets?"

Baltimore County Police Department Chief James Johnson said he does not believe that officers are "taking a knee" in response to public criticism.


Last week, Obama told a group of police chiefs that Black Lives Matter activists had legitimate concerns, and suggested it was unfair to paint the entire movement as somehow anti-cop. While he said that the “overwhelming majority" of law enforcement officers are doing the right thing, he said the concerns the African-American community has about law enforcement can't be dismissed. That's a message that may not be well-received by some of those in the audience at the IACP, where "Blue Lives Matter" stickers were slapped on some of the armored tactical vehicles being promoted on the floor of the convention hall, and where protesters shut down streets near the location of the conference over the weekend, resulting in dozens of arrests.

As part of the push toward reform, the White House will release a guide in conjunction with Obama's speech that is intended to help law enforcement agencies implement the recommendations of the 21st Century Task Force on Policing, which was formed in the wake of protests in Ferguson.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, said in an interview that many police chiefs "absolutely" see the public scrutiny of law enforcement since Ferguson as a chance to bring about change.

"I think one of the things effective police chiefs do is they take a crisis and they see it as an opportunity," Wexler said. "At the end of the day, we are in the business we're in because of human life, because of the importance of human life."

Attorney General Loretta Lynch will also speak to the conference on Monday and will unveil two reports: one on "ambush" attacks against officers, and the other on officer wellness.

“"I think one of the things effective police chiefs do, is they take a crisis and they see it as an opportunity,"”

- Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum

As for the FBI director, Comey himself acknowledged he had no evidence that officers' fear of being captured in a viral video in "today's YouTube world" was to blame for spikes in violent crime. Instead, he said, it was based on his "common sense" and his discussions with members of law enforcement.

The public policy implications of Comey's remarks are unclear. The government is able to regulate officer behavior, but any attempt to regulate the actions of citizens who wish to film the actions of police in public spaces would infringe upon First Amendment rights.

There is also a risk in demonizing the actions of individuals who record police activity. Long before the protests in Ferguson that followed Michael Brown's death in August 2014, the Ferguson Police Department "routinely" infringed on First Amendment rights and claimed that filming the police somehow endangered officers, according to a report from the Justice Department. That DOJ report stated that it is clear that filming questionable police activity can ensure that "the activity is investigated and subject to broad public debate," and pointed out that several federal appeals courts found that recording police was constitutionally protected activity.

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