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In Speech To Police Chiefs, Obama Pushes For Tougher Gun Laws

President Obama told the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference in Chicago Tuesday that police should not be scapegoated for the failures of the justice system.
Charles Rex Arbogast

In a speech to a meeting of police chiefs, President Obama defended the job of police departments across the country, called for tougher gun laws and said the United States criminal justice system needs reform.

"Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system," Obama said at a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago. "I know that you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face. That's part of wearing the 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 — problems ranging from substandard education to a shortage of jobs and opportunity, from an absence of drug treatment programs to laws that result in it being easier in too many neighborhoods for a young person to purchase a gun than a book."

Obama spoke just as the White House sought to distance itself from comments made by FBI Director James Comey. As we reported, Comey linked the recent rise in violent crime in some cities to less aggressive policing that he said may be due to the increased scrutiny officers have faced after a rash of high-profile police killings of black men.

According to the Associated Press, White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters traveling with Obama that it is not clear that crime has spiked nationwide.

"The available body of evidence does not support the notion that law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from doing their job," Schultz said.

In his speech, Obama said that he rejected a narrative that frames the relationship between officers and the communities they police as "us" and "them."

American police forces, he said, have made communities safer, and that's something every American should take pride in.

"That doesn't mean we shouldn't have a serious and robust debate over fairness in law enforcement and our broader criminal justice system when it comes to communities of color," he said.

Obama said that the U.S. has to do more to give young people a job instead of putting them in prison and it has to rethink a system that sends nonviolent offenders to jail for a long time.

"Right now, America is home to less than 5 percent of the world's population, but about 25 percent of its prisoners," Obama said.

The AP reports on the gun control portion of the speech:

"Following this month's deadly shooting at an Oregon community college, the president also planned to discuss steps to reduce gun violence, such as requiring 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 fallen officers,' Obama said. 'They mean more grieving families, and more Americans terrified that they or their loved ones could be next.' "

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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