President Obama takes on policing in aftermath of Ferguson

President Obama on Monday kept the national debate firmly on Ferguson, Mo., as he took a series of steps that he said would rebuild trust between police officers and minority communities.

The president dedicated his entire public schedule to Ferguson, meeting with civil rights leaders, Cabinet officials and law enforcement officers after a long holiday weekend when the shooting had begun to slip from the headlines. 


“This is a problem that is national,” Obama said. “It is a solvable problem, but it is one that unfortunately spikes but fades into background. What we need is a sustained conversation ... to move forward in a constructive fashion.”

Obama’s public events took place a week after a grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, triggering protests around the country. While the president has been careful not to take sides in the racially charged case, he made clear that he thinks changes at local police departments are needed.

For starters, Obama requested federal funding that could purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for police officers, something the family of slain 18-year-old Brown has lobbied for. 

The White House also moved to reform the way local police can get heavy-military-style weapons and equipment, implementing new policies and training requirements from law enforcement that acquires supplies from the Pentagon.

And Obama said he would create a new task force that will examine “how to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust,” in the words of a White House official. That panel will be led by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson.

For Obama, the flurry of activity served multiple purposes.

First, the White House hopes the moves will be seen as responsive to the sustained protests across the nation, and give credence to the president’s repeated insistence that he wants to meaningfully discuss “hard truths” about race in America.

The president has come under fire from some civil rights leaders for his approach to Ferguson, in which he’s stressed both the concerns of the protesters and the interests of the law enforcement community. 

After meeting with civil rights leaders and elected officials on Monday, Obama spoke more personally, saying that hearing experiences of discrimination recounted by young people “violates my belief in what America can do.” 

Many of the leaders on hand at the White House praised Obama for his willingness to delve into the race debate.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said the White House meeting was unlike anything he had ever seen.

“I have never participated in a gathering like the one that took place right now, where the president, the vice president, representatives of police organizations from around the country, mayors from cities across the country, and civil rights leaders sat at a table together with young leaders who have been on the front lines in places like Ferguson to have a candid, open, productive, substantive discussion about the issues facing the nation.”

Politically, the meeting also allowed the president to again drive the agenda. 

Since his party was dealt devastating losses in last month’s midterm elections, Obama has worked hard to use executive action to maintain his relevance and influence.

The latest use of executive might includes the administration’s call for $263 million for cameras and training that would be used by the federal government to match up to 50 percent spending by state and local police departments on body-worn cameras and storage for the equipment. 

The White House estimates that aspect of the program, which would cost $75 million, would help fund the purchase of 50,000 body-worn cameras.

The remainder of the money would be used to underwrite police training and outreach programs targeted at building trust between law enforcement and their communities.

The biggest change announced by Obama, however, could be a new effort overhauling how military-style equipment is distributed to police departments.

A review ordered by Obama shortly after protests gripped Ferguson in August found “a lack of consistency in how federal programs are structured, implemented and audited.”

The Ferguson Police Department deployed officers wearing gas masks, military fatigues, stun guns and rubber bullets during the initial protests. 

Obama’s review found that five different federal departments disperse military-style equipment to state and local police departments, and that standards vary for evaluating the requests for equipment and for providing training.

The White House said that during its review, the administration found that many of the programs transferring military equipment to police forces “actually serve a very useful purpose.”

Press secretary Josh Earnest cited the response to the Boston Marathon bombing as one example.

“That was equipment that was properly used and was done in a way that would both protect the community but also protect the law enforcement officers that were responding to the situation,” Earnest said.

Still, Earnest said, there was a need for “much greater consistency in oversight of these programs, primarily in how these programs are structured, how they’re implemented and then how the programs themselves are audited.”

“That’s something that needs to be addressed,” he added.

During a conference call, White House officials repeatedly declined to weigh in on whether the administration supported legislation offered by Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnNSF funding choice: Move forward or fall behind DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office Wasteful 'Endless Frontiers Act' won't counter China's rising influence MORE (R-Okla.) that would block state and local police from receiving certain items like M16 rifles and mine-resistant ambush vehicles.

“Our assumption was Congress had an intent here to support local law enforcement with this kind of equipment,” a senior administration official said. “Our focus was on what kind of protections were in place to make sure that it’s used properly and safely.”

Separately, Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderObama planning first post-2020 fundraiser Democratic group launches seven-figure ad campaign on voting rights bill Biden: 'Simply wrong' for Trump DOJ to seek journalists' phone records MORE was headed to Atlanta on Monday for the first of a series of meetings designed to improve community trust in law enforcement.

White House officials, meanwhile, would not say whether there were any plans for Obama to travel to Ferguson in the coming days.

“The president indicated an openness to traveling to Ferguson, but no specific plans,” Earnest said.

But while civil rights groups are applauding Obama’s response, a presidential visit to Ferguson could inflame tensions with police departments and their advocates in Washington.

Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, was on hand for Monday’s meeting at the White House. He said his group does not “object to camera use per se,” but that “critical to the appropriate use of cameras” was collectively bargained agreements on when and how they would be used.

“Almost the easiest thing in the whole process is buying the cameras,” he said.

And despite earlier criticism of the president’s handling of Ferguson — in August, Pasco said it was “not helpful” for Obama to comment during his Martha’s Vineyard vacation — Pasco called Monday’s meeting a “good first step.”

“There was a general difference in perspective between some minority communities and some police departments, but that’s the kind of thing that is to be discussed in a dialogue going forward,” he said.