WARSAW – President Obama strove to convey a message of solace and unity in the wake of an extraordinary week that rubbed raw issues of police safety and racial bias in policing, saying he believes Americans will come together to find common ground.
“As painful as the week has been, I fully believe that America is not as divided as people have suggested,” he said. People of all races and backgrounds are outraged by the killing of police officers in Dallas – even those protesting the police, he said. And the same people are angered by the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Sterling, 37, of Baton Rouge, La., and Castile, 32, of St. Paul, Minn., are both African-American men killed by police in incidents captured on video last week. Their deaths sparked nationwide protests that boiled over just as Obama left Thursday (July 7) for what was supposed to be a four-day trip to Europe. After five Dallas police officers were killed Thursday night, Obama cut short his trip and will instead return home Sunday after a one-day visit to Spain.
He will visit Dallas early next week, the White House said, and devote the rest of the week to working on issues of police safety and eliminating bias in policing. Obama did not outline any specific steps, but suggested that a starting point was the report of a commission he established after the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
“There is sorrow. There is anger. There is confusion about the next steps. But there is unity in recognizing that this is not how we want our communities to operate. This is not who we want to be as Americans,” Obama told reporters in Warsaw.
It was the third time he addressed police-community relations while in Poland for a summit of NATO leaders. “You have not seen riots, and you have not seen police going after people who are protesting peacefully.”
Obama declined to talk about the Dallas shooter’s motives. Dallas Police Chief David Brown has said former Army Reservist Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, was seeking retribution against white police officers for police-involved shootings throughout the country.
“By definition, if you shoot people who are no threat to you — strangers — you have a troubled mind,” Obama said. “We’re not going to identify and eliminate every madman and troubled individual who might want to do harm against innocent people. But we can make it harder for them to do so.”
Obama was talking about his efforts to get Congress to pass stricter gun control laws. And he quickly clarified that he wasn’t just talking about the mass shootings that dominate the headlines, but also the “hundreds of people who have already been killed in my hometown of Chicago — the ones we consider routine.”
The prevalence of guns, he said, makes it difficult for police. In Dallas, for example, people protesting the police-involved shootings were openly carrying weapons, which is legal under Texas law.
“Imagine if you are a police officer and you’re trying to sort out who is shooting at you, and there are a lot of people who have guns on them,” he said. “If you care about the safety of our police officers, you can’t set aside the gun issue and pretend it’s irrelevant.”
(Gregory Korte writes for USA Today)