Obama signals he’ll put muscle behind response to police killings

 

President Obama is pledging a robust effort to ensure the criminal justice system treats all people equally regardless of color following a New York City grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer in the killing of Eric Garner.

Obama has already announced funding for local police training and body cameras, and he convened a meeting of civil rights leaders and law enforcement officials at the White House on Monday to address the issue.

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A new White House task force is looking into how local police are gaining heavy weapons and equipment from the military.

During a Thursday speech, Obama said he intends to “take more steps,” with leaders like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, “in the months ahead to make sure that all Americans have confidence that police and law enforcement are serving everybody equally.”

“When it comes, as we’ve seen, unfortunately, in recent days, to our criminal justice system, too many Americans feel deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis,” Obama said.  

He acknowledged addressing the issue was a big challenge, but said it should galvanize the country and bring Americans together.

The New York grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer in the death of Garner, who was placed in a chokehold and said repeatedly “I can’t breathe” as he was pulled to the ground, hit Washington like a sledgehammer.

The decision came just two weeks after a separate grand jury did not indict a white police officer in the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was unarmed when he was killed.

Both decisions have provoked protests around the country, elevating the issue of criminal justice and police behavior.

But it remains unclear how long Obama and the White House will be focused on the issue given a breadth of other challenges facing the administration.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Thursday pledged that the task force announced by Obama following that meeting would “produce results.”

Pressed on whether it was more of a symbolic gesture, he said Obama “deserves the benefit of the doubt.”

While White House aides said there were no immediate plans for Obama to travel to either Ferguson, Mo., or New York, that they weren't ruling out a visit in the days and weeks ahead.

It’s also possible Obama could address race in a potential speech.

The president is coming under pressure from black lawmakers and civil liberties groups to make sure the issue stays on Washington’s radar.

Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that the issue should hold the attention of the White House and lawmakers through the end of Obama’s presidency. 

“It just seems like to me that the frequency of these police shootings is something pretty jarring,” she said. 

Murphy, who attended this week’s meeting at the White House, said she was impressed with the president’s handling of the issue so far.

“The president is committed to rolling out a series of actions that will focus more significantly on racial profiling and use of excessive force,” she said. 

New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel said he is pleased that the “president is amplifying the call to seek justice and truth in Eric Garner's wrongful death.”

He said the Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president didn’t “suddenly end the decades of racism and injustice in our country.” 

“It is not just change in law or leadership, but change in our culture that is needed to heal the wounds that have been left through the centuries of racial hatred and prejudice,” he said. 

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a former prosecutor who called the decision “baffling,” said that Obama’s engagement — and the Justice Department’s investigations into several cases — “is a positive sign that our nation can address this stunningly persistent problem.”

Some Republicans have called for hearings, something Meeks said pointed to “a bipartisan recognition that our criminal justice system is flawed.” 

“Congress should absolutely hold hearings and if necessary exercise its power of subpoena so that the public is fully informed about the state of justice in America’s cities,” he said. 

Rep. Yvette Clarke, another New York Democrat, called it “quite encouraging to hear the bipartisan call for congressional hearings regarding the lack of grand jury indictments.”

Some black lawmakers want to look at making changes to the way grand juries operate. They have criticized a system that has prosecutors, who work closely with police, lead efforts to win indictments when police officers are accused of wrongdoing.

Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the incoming whip for the Congressional Black Caucus who represents part of New York City, said action by Congress would be a positive move.

“To the extent Congressional Republicans are willing to move forward with hearings on excessive police force and grand jury reform, that would be a welcome step in the right direction,” he said.