NYC returns Obama to center of debate over police and race

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President Obama’s Hawaii vacation had barely begun when the news broke that two New York City police officers had been shot dead by a lone assailant who posted anti-police screeds on social media.

The shocking story returned Obama to the center of a raging national debate over race and police tactics that he has repeatedly sought to manage with care — just as that debate had started to cool.

{mosads}The targeted killings of the two officers also put those who in recent weeks had criticized police tactics on defense, with some politicians blaming the rhetoric by Obama, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others for inciting violence.

That’s made the situation more difficult for Obama.

“It’s a tough balance,” said Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer. “Politically, it’s very explosive, and there are heated passions on all sides.”

Obama has taken a cautious approach to the latest story, and has yet to appear on-camera to discuss the killings of the two New York cops.

Obama has instead issued only a paper statement denouncing the shootings of the two New York police officers, while calling New York Police Commissioner William Bratton to offer his condolences and federal assistance in the investigation.

Obama also called Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who was named earlier this month to lead a White House task force examining police practices. The task force was formed after the storm over the Ferguson grand jury — and after a separate grand jury in Staten Island did not indict a white police officer accused of killing African American Eric Garner, who had been put in a choke hold.

That differs from his approach earlier this fall, when a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., delivered its no-indictment decision for officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown.

Obama made a statement that night from the White House briefing room that was carried live on cable television, seeking to calm the public in Ferguson and beyond.

But Obama also came under criticism earlier this year when he waited for days to address the initial unrest in Ferguson during a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

The president’s challenge, Zelizer said, is to “convey sympathy and understanding in the Garner case and the Ferguson case toward racial equality, and show, like any good president, he wants to find ways to stop those kind of incidents and be sensitive.”

“On the other hand, he wants to show himself to be a supporter of police and law and order.”

Prominent Republican politicians from New York, including former Gov. George Pataki, Rep. Peter King, and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have criticized the Obama administration for backing protests critical of police tactics.

“The president says we have to have a conversation on race, and then he says it’s up to the police to change their tactics and their methods, implying that the police are the ones that are always wrong,” King told Fox News on Monday.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association in New York, said there was “blood on the hands” of those politicians supporting demonstrators questioning the police.

No White House official has commented publicly on the criticism, although James Cole, the no. 2 official at the Justice Department, argued Monday that the government’s efforts to reform police tactics were not responsible for agitating the shooter.

“I think that what you have to be able to do is have a conversation about isolated instances where we see profiling or we see excessive force, and, at the same time, we have to make sure that our officers are safe and that we do everything we can to make sure that the brave men and women who are part of law enforcement are protected as much as we can,” Cole said, adding that officials were “not undercutting cops.”

“Those are conversations that we have to have at the same time, and we can have at the same time,” he continued. “And I don’t subscribe to the view that you can’t do one or the other, and they cancel each other out.”

During the six years of his presidency, Obama has frequently come under criticism from police or those demonstrating against them.

After a black Harvard professor was arrested for breaking into his own home, Obama said the police had acted stupidly — a comment that led to the now famous White House beer summit.

Obama gave some of the most candid comments of his presidency on race after a black teenager in Florida was shot and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, saying the teen would look like his son if he had one.

But more recently, the president has come under criticism from some civil rights leaders for striking too cautious a tone on the Brown and Garner killings, with many challenging the president for not doing more to express solidarity with the protestors or speaking passionately enough about the issue.

Yet that restrained approach seemed necessitated by the tightrope Obama has been asked to walk. Even as civil rights leaders and reporters questioned why Obama did not travel to Ferguson or speak more bluntly, the executive director of his White House task force on race also acknowledged before the shootings last week that law enforcement was upset over increased scrutiny of police officers.

“It’s tough right now, because obviously rank-and-file officers feel like everything is focused on them,” Davis said, saying he hoped the panel could find ways for the two sides to “disagree without being disagreeable and learn how to work the solutions and problems.”

Obama so far has largely stuck to his vacation routine while in Hawaii, staying on the golf course even after being briefed about the shooting incident and then hitting the links again on Sunday. In doing so, the president has allowed focus to harden on officials in New York City itself, to some extent extricating himself from a politically difficult situation.

It’s a familiar strategy for the president, who cherishes his time in the state of his birth and rarely makes public statements from his vacation home. 

After the underwear bombing attempt in 2009, it was days before the president spoke publicly, instead dispatching then-press secretary Robert Gibbs and Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano to the Sunday talk shows. In 2012, traveled back to Washington from Hawaii to attend to the fiscal cliff negotiations, rather than speak from Honolulu. 

“What he doesn’t want to do is create a sense of crisis by stopping everything. And the reality is there’s always some issue that is important and very frequently they flare in the media,” Zelizer said. “But we’re also in an era where visuals matter.”



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