By Rick Pearson
President Barack Obama on Tuesday sought to balance minority concerns of overaggressive policing with an attempt to enlist law enforcement's help to push for stronger federal gun-control laws.
Returning to his hometown to speak to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Obama readily acknowledged gun violence remains an acute problem in Chicago that has plagued the city's reputation for years.
Yet Obama said the root of the city's gun violence rested in neighborhoods facing poverty, few job prospects, rampant drug use, broken families and easy availability of guns that youths can buy cheaper than books.
"It is true that in some cities, including here in my hometown of Chicago, gun violence and homicides have spiked, and in some cases they have spiked significantly," Obama said.
Making a reference to his home in the Kenwood neighborhood where he was scheduled to stay overnight, Obama said, "I live on the South Side of Chicago, so my house is pretty close to places where shootings take place. Because that's real, we've got to get on top of it before it becomes an accelerating trend."
The trip home was a day of mixed messages. After talking about law enforcement and crime concerns, Obama keynoted two fundraisers where the contributions were up to $33,400 per person. The president closed out the night with a courtside seat at the United Center, joined by longtime friend Martin Nesbitt, for the home opener of the Chicago Bulls, who played LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
At the second fundraiser of the evening, one for the Democratic National Committee that drew about 80 people at a hotel restaurant in the Gold Coast, Obama thanked his friends from the city.
"After seven years of hard work I think we can look back and say the country is better because of what we have done together," Obama said, decrying what some had described as his lame-duck status just a year ago. "There are very few measures by which the country is not better off."
But in pushing for what he called "gun safety" legislation, Obama finds himself dealing with the same opposition that has stalled his previous efforts. After earlier considering use of executive actions to try to curb large-scale gun buys, Obama resigned himself to seeking legislation even though it runs counter to the Republican majorities in the House and Senate as well as some Democrats from rural states with a long history of gun-owner rights.
The president issued a renewed call for federal action to increase and tighten background checks of gun buyers and increase coordination of background information among all agencies -- steps aimed at curbing inconsistencies in a patchwork of state gun laws.
Obama's call to action from the law enforcement community comes as his administration has worked to provide a model strategy for police and community relations after high-profile cases, including deaths, that stirred public complaints of overly aggressive policing.
Still, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and FBI Director James Comey have said recently that the new scrutiny of police actions may be preventing some officers from fully exercising their duties -- a theory the White House rejects. Obama sought to assure the law enforcement community that he supported its efforts to curb crime and said his administration is trying to provide the tools it needs.
"Every day you risk your lives so that the rest of us don't have to. You serve and protect to provide the security so many Americans take for granted. And by the way, your families serve alongside you. And as you serve, America places very high expectations on you," he said.
The president blamed the news media's drive for ratings, social media channels and political rhetoric for creating a false perception that violent crime is increasing across the nation and that police have become too aggressive.
"I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities that they serve. I reject a storyline that says when it comes to public safety, there's an us and a them," he said.
"Our divides are not as deep as some are suggesting. I don't know anybody in the community that doesn't want strong and effective law enforcement," he said. "The question is how do we bridge these issues?
"We need to start by supporting you, the men and women who walk that thin blue line."
Obama touted the work of Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department for forming new policies and working with local ministers and residents to encourage more community cooperation.
As for the issue of aggressive policing, Obama likened individual officers who take inappropriate action to "to politicians who do stupid things. There's no profession that doesn't have people who sometimes screw up." But, he said, they should be held accountable and not have their actions covered up.
Curbing the easy availability of guns in high-crime areas was Obama's focus, though it didn't come until 35 minutes of a more than 50-minute speech.
"It used to be if a kid or a group of kids were misbehaving, adults could say something to them," he said. "But now you don't know if they're armed," he said.
And Obama sought to make the point that rates of gun ownership have an impact on police deaths.
"In states with high gun ownership, police officers are three times more likely to be murdered than in states with low gun ownership. So you know, more guns on the street do not make you or your community safer," he said.
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