WASHINGTON — Calling for a sharp separation between the nation’s armed forces and local police, President Barack Obama on Monday urged a re-examination of programs that have equipped civilian law enforcement departments with military gear from the Pentagon.
The transfers have come under public scrutiny after the forceful police response to racially charged unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
Amid video images of well-armed police confronting protesters with combat weapons and other surplus military equipment, Obama said it would be useful to review how local law enforcement agencies have used federal grants that permit them to obtain heavier armaments.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “That would be contrary to our traditions.”
Obama’s remarks came as he called for understanding in the face of anger in Ferguson in the wake of a police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man. Obama said the vast majority of protesters in the St. Louis suburb were peaceful, but said that a small minority was undermining justice for the shooting victim, Michael Brown.
The initial police reaction to the protests drew attention to the militarization of local police departments, with critics arguing that the heavily-armed police presence only fueled the tensions. Attorney General Eric Holder and several lawmakers have suggested that the practice of supplying police with such military surplus be reconsidered. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union in June said police agencies had become “excessively militarized,” with officers using training and equipment designed for the battlefield on city streets.
Obama said he also spoke to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon about Nixon’s deployment of National Guard units to help secure Ferguson, urging the governor to ensure that the guard be used in a “limited and appropriate way.”
“I’ll be watching over the next several days, to assess whether, in fact, it’s helping rather than hindering progress in Ferguson,” he said.
Pausing briefly in the middle of his summer vacation, Obama expressed sympathy for the “passions and anger” sparked by Brown’s death. But he said giving in to that anger through looting and attacks on police only stirs tensions and leads to further chaos. He said overcoming the mistrust endemic between many communities and their local police would require Americans to “listen and not just shout.”
“That’s how we’re going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other and not simply divide ourselves from one another,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
Obama said Holder would travel to Ferguson this week to meet with FBI and other officials carrying out an independent federal investigation into Brown’s death. Separately, Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., whose district includes Ferguson, told Democratic lawmakers Monday that he will meet with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to push for changes in the program that provides military equipment to local police departments.
Appearing in the White House briefing room in a dress shirt but no tie, Obama also spoke for the first time to the racial tensions and grievances perceived by African-Americans in Ferguson. In previous comments about the situation, Obama had avoided talking directly about race, wary of rushing to judgment or further inflaming the situation.
Weighing his words carefully, Obama said it was clear that disparities in how blacks and whites are treated and sentenced must be addressed, calling for more safeguards and training to prevent missteps. At the same time, he acknowledged the difficult situation that police officers sometimes face.
“There are young black men that commit crime. We can argue about why that happened — because the poverty they were born into or the school systems that failed them or what have you— but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted,” Obama said. “Because every community has an interest in public safety.”
Brown was unarmed when he was fatally shot by a police officer on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, a predominantly black community that long has been at odds with the mostly white police department. Results of an independent autopsy released Monday by Brown’s family determined that Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head.
Obama’s remarks on the crisis were the first since the situation in Ferguson escalated over the weekend, with Nixon, the Missouri governor, ordering a midnight curfew for Ferguson and ordering the National Guard to help restore order. Nixon lifted that curfew on Monday, but tensions remained high the morning after police once again deployed tear gas in response to what they said were reports of gunfire, looting and vandalism by protesters.
Obama weighed in on the crisis during a brief break in his annual summer vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, where the president was spending two weeks with his family while juggling multiple crises in the U.S. and overseas. Obama returned to the White House late Monday and planned to return to the Massachusetts island on Tuesday. His brief return to Washington had been announced by the White House before the standoff in Ferguson began.