CHICAGO — In highly anticipated remarks Tuesday, President Barack Obama took his push for gun control and criminal justice overhauls to a room full of the country’s top police brass — who enthusiastically backed his calls for comprehensive background checks, assault weapons bans, and reductions in the incarceration rate.
“None of this is easy. But it can be done. And it has to be done,” Obama said.
The president's appearance was the first of its kind in more than two decades; it’s been more than 20 years since a sitting president addressed the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference, which brings together thousands of national and international police leaders each year, under the umbrella of the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit member group of police officers and leaders. It also comes as the country continues grappling with racial tensions and between the force and the American public, with citizens’ trust in the badge at a 22-year low.
Praising law enforcement officers and touting a steep decline in violent crime rates, Obama promised the room to provide adequate resources for policing, and told officers his renewed push for gun control and prison and sentencing changes are, at the end of the day, built to make officers' jobs easier and lives safer.
“You know exactly why someone all too often should want to own a gun. It’s a powerful instrument. It helps you do a dangerous job,” Obama said to applause. “It’s something that has to be used with care. Many of you, like millions of law abiding Americans are sportsmen or hunters, but you also know the fact is that it’s too easy for criminals to buy guns and that make your already dangerous job far more dangerous than it should be… cops should not be out-armed by the criminals they’re pursuing.”
The IACP, which has historically backed assault weapons bans and tightening gun purchasing loopholes, could prove to be a valuable partner for Obama on guns.
The president additionally pushed chiefs to back his new push for changes to the criminal justice system, which comes on the heels of the White House’s recently announced plan to help reduce the swollen populations of overcrowded prisons.
“Too often law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of society and our criminal justice system,” he said — to hesitant claps. “It is possible for us to come up with strategies to effectively reduce the damage of the drug trade without relying solely on incarceration.”
Invoking his own experience as a black man in Chicago, his hometown, the president also took the opportunity to address the fragile state of policing in minority communities, where a spate of police-involved shootings and excessive use of force — including a video released justMonday of a South Carolina officer body-slamming a female high school student — has exacerbated racial tensions.
There were times he was pulled over and cited even when he knew he did nothing wrong, Obama said, and that experience is a reality in the black community. He went on to list several police-involved shootings that have dominated headlines over the past year.