Obama Urges Rebuilding Trust in Police After Ferguson, NY Cases

President Barack Obama said the U.S. for too long has failed to ease the mistrust between minority communities and police as his Justice Department began an inquiry into the death of a New York man choked by police.

In his first reaction to news that a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a white New York City police officer in the death of a black man he had in a chokehold, Obama yesterday promised a “scrupulous” investigation of any cases that raise questions about whether the law has been applied fairly.

Obama didn’t directly comment on the outcome of the New York case, which came a week after a grand jury in Missouri cleared a white officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

“This is an American problem, and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem,” Obama said at the start of an address to the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington. “It’s my job as president to help solve it.”

For the second time this week, Obama addressed the tense relationship that he said exists between law enforcement officers and many minority communities and vowed to find a way to ease it. He met at the White House Dec. 1 with law enforcement officials, civil rights leaders and elected leaders, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, to seek answers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last night the Justice Department would conduct a civil-rights investigation into the July 17 death of Eric Garner, who had been stopped by New York police on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes.

Difficult Job

Before Holder’s announcement, Obama said he recognized the “incredibly difficult job” that police have and the risks they take. At the same time, he said, some members of minority groups feel they are treated unfairly by officers.

“In some cases, those may be misperceptions; but in some cases, that’s a reality,” he said.

The grand jurors on New York’s Staten Island reached their decision yesterday after months of testimony in Garner’s death, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. said in a statement. Garner, 43, died after plain-clothes officers led by Daniel Pantaleo sought to handcuff him, forcing him to the ground after stopping him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.

A bystander’s video recording of the incident was widely circulated, triggering outrage and calls for the officers to be charged, as well as a federal civil-rights investigation.

“We have all seen the video of Mr. Garner’s arrest,” Holder said. “Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation.”

Congressional Reaction

Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee who represents a portion of Manhattan, said he couldn’t understand the outcome.

“No one can doubt what happened,” Nadler said, calling the force used by police “an apparently felonious action” that was caught on video.

Representative Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, expressed disappointment that the New York officer wasn’t indicted in Garner’s death.

“This is yet another sad day for our country and our democracy,” she said. “In the span of two weeks, this nation seems to have heard one message loud and clear: There will be no accountability for taking black lives.”

As part of the administration’s response, Obama said on Dec. 1 that he’s asking Congress for a three-year $263 million community policing package that includes $75 million, along with matching funds from local governments, to supply up to 50,000 body-worn cameras for officers.

Task Force

Obama also formed a task force to examine “how to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust,” and make recommendations within 90 days, according to the White House. The panel will be led by Charles H. Ramsey, police commissioner in Philadelphia, and Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general and professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

On Dec. 1, Holder said that the Justice Department plans to issue guidance that will create new standards that seek to end racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies.

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