Obama to police chiefs: U.S. safer because of your efforts

President Barack Obama speaks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — Defending police officers who have come under scrutiny like never before, President Barack Obama on Tuesday said the men and women who risk their lives to provide security are wrongly “scapegoated” for failing to deal with broader problems that lead people to commit crimes.

Unemployment, poor education, inadequate drug treatment and lax gun laws are not the responsibility of police officers, Obama said in remarks to the International Association of Chief of Police, which held its annual meeting in the president’s Chicago hometown.

He blamed the news media’s tendency “to focus on the sensational” for helping to drive a wedge between police officers and a public they take an oath to protect and serve. He called for rebuilding the trust that once existed between them.

Obama delivered his speech amid a roiling national debate about officers’ treatment of potential criminal suspects following the deaths of unarmed black men in New York, Missouri and elsewhere by police.

“Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system,” the president said. “I know that you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face. That’s part of wearing a badge.”

“But we can’t expect you to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about,” he said.

Obama also sought to avoid making the debate about police against communities.

“I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and the communities that they serve — I reject the story line that says, when it comes to public safety, there’s an ‘us’ and ‘them,'” Obama said. He said it’s a “narrative that too often gets served up to us by news stations seeking ratings, or tweets seeking retweets, or political candidates seeking some attention.”

Obama opened his remarks with a tribute to slain New York City police officer Randolph Holder as hundreds of officers streamed into his wake. Holder, 33, died last week after being shot in the head by a man he and his partner were chasing. The officers had responded to a call of shots fired and a bicycle stolen at gunpoint. A suspect is in custody on charges of murder and robbery in Holder’s killing.

Obama praised the Guyana native as emblematic of many U.S. police officers who put their lives on the line every day.

Before the speech, Obama met with the families of law enforcement officers who were killed on the job, according to the White House. He also met with relatives of victims of Chicago gun violence. Chicago, like some other major U.S. cities, is grappling with an alarming spike in violent crime.

Obama argued for fairer sentencing laws as part of his push for a more effective criminal justice system. He said that while he has no sympathy for violent offenders, America every year wastes billions of dollars that could be better spent to keep non-violent offenders behind bars.

Following this month’s deadly shooting at an Oregon community college, Obama also used to appearance to push for new steps to reduce gun violence, such as requiring national background checks for every firearms purchase. The police chiefs’ association supports such checks.

“Fewer gun safety laws don’t mean more freedom, they mean more danger, certainly, more danger to the police, more fallen officers, ” Obama said. “More grieving families, more Americans terrified that they or their loved ones could be next.”

In response to Obama, the National Rifle Association called for tougher enforcement of federal gun laws on the books.

Anthony Campos, the chief of police in Newark, New Jersey, said he found the president’s comments “very comforting because at the end of the day he gets it, he understands our job.” Obama plans to visit Newark on Monday to highlight programs for formerly incarcerated people.

Campos added that the president’s comments about building trust between police and communities validated what has been done in New Jersey’s largest city.

“We have been spared a lot of what we are seeing in the rest of the nation because of the relationship we have with the community,” Campos said of his department.

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Associated Press writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.

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