CHICAGO -- President Barack Obama told police chiefs from across the country on Tuesday that the country is enjoying "historically low rates of violent crime" because of their efforts as he pushed for criminal justice reform and tried to bridge the divide between police and the communities they serve.
"I want to start by saying on behalf of the American people, thank you," Obama said in a speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago. The president said police officers are too often "scapegoated" for broader failures in the criminal justice system and in society, and that he hoped to "find common ground" with law enforcement on the issue of gun control. He also spoke of the need for a "smarter and fairer" criminal justice system and talked about investing in communities in ways that would prevent crime down the line.
Obama said "our divides are not as deep as some would like to suggest," and called for more understanding between citizens and police. The media, he said, "tends to focus on the sensational and the controversial, and folks on both sides who say stuff that’s not designed to bring people together." While referencing recent controversies over police misconduct, Obama tried to seek a middle ground.
"We’ve got to resist the false trap that says either there should be no accountability for police or that every police officer is suspect no matter what they do," he said.
But Obama said police departments need to address issues when they come up.
"When an individual officer does display bias or excessive force, which is gonna happen, just like there are going to be politicians who do stupid things, or business leaders... there's no profession that doesn't have somebody that sometimes screws up," Obama said. Police departments need to honestly address it and not simply "close ranks or stand down," he added.
Officers care about fairness in the criminal justice system and "want to do the right thing," the president said, adding that he was confident "people of good will can and should find common ground" on the issue.
"Let me be as clear as I can be," Obama said. "I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities they serve. I reject a storyline that says when it comes to public safety, it's 'us' and 'them.'"
Obama also mentioned the recent death of New York City Police Officer Randolph Holder, and said that "each fallen police officer is one too many." He also noted that the number of police officers killed in recent years has reached historic lows.
"We do have to stick with the facts," Obama said. "What we can’t do it cherrypick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas."
The statement seemed to be a reference to claims that his administration is against law enforcement. Obama spoke a day after FBI Director James Comey suggested that fear of being caught in a viral video was keeping police officers in their cars and was leading to an increase in crime in some cities. The White House has distanced itself from those remarks.
Obama received a standing ovation when he entered the packed ballroom, where attendees waiting for the event listened to a discussion with a Department of Justice official and law enforcement leaders about civil rights and criminal justice enforcement reform.
Obama closed out his remarks by calling for what he called "commonsense" gun safety measures, including universal background checks.
"I refuse to accept the notion that we couldn’t have prevented some of those murders, and suicides, and kept more families whole. I know we won’t all agree on this issue," Obama said. "But it’s time to be honest -- fewer gun safety laws don’t mean more freedom, they mean more fallen officers. They mean more grieving families, and more Americans terrified that they or their loved ones could be next."
"So I’m going to keep calling on the folks in Congress to change the way they deal with gun safety -- and if they don’t, I’m going to keep calling on Americans to change the folks in Congress until they get this right," he said.