Police union criticizes Obama shooting response, calls for hate crime investigation

President Obama pauses as he makes a statement on the fatal police shootings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota after arriving in Warsaw, Poland, on Friday. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)
President Obama pauses as he makes a statement on the fatal police shootings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota after arriving in Warsaw, Poland, on Friday. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)

The nation’s largest police union is calling on the Justice Department to investigate the fatal shooting of five police officers in Dallas Thursday night as a hate crime — and is criticizing President Obama for his response to the shootings so far.

“We’d like to see the president make one speech that speaks to everybody instead of one speech that speaks to black people as they grieve and one speech that speaks to police officers as they grieve,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 330,000 officers. “We don’t need two presidents, we only need one. We need one who works to unify the United States.”

Pasco said the union is looking for stronger voices of support for law enforcement within the administration and elsewhere. On Thursday, Obama addressed two recent police shootings of black men, calling them tragedies that point to entrenched racial disparities in the criminal justice system. “When incidents like this occur, there is a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same,” Obama said, adding that he had respect and appreciation for the “vast majority” of police officers who protect Americans every day. Friday morning, hours after the shooting of police in Dallas, Obama called the shootings a “vicious, calculated, despicable attack” and vowed “justice will be done.”

Pasco said his union would like justice to take the form of a hate crime investigation into the shootings.

“The U.S. Department of Justice is always quick to insert itself into local investigations, sometimes before the preliminary reports are even in,” Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement. “Today we expect action just as swift — we want a federal investigation into those who were motivated by their hatred of police to commit mass murder in Dallas last night.”

The union has pushed unsuccessfully for federal legislation to make killing someone because they are a police officer a hate crime. Some states, including Louisiana, have adopted state-level police hate crime laws. Hate crimes typically carry harsher punishments than regular crimes.

Though no law exists to prosecute the shootings as hate crimes against police, it’s possible that the Department of Justice could decide to investigate them as hate crimes based on anti-white animus. According to Dallas Police Chief David Brown, the suspect in the murders of five police officers said he “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” The suspect said he was not affiliated with any group and was upset by recent police shootings of black men.

The federal hate crimes statute applies to offenders targeting people based upon their “actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin.” In 2014, 23 percent of federal racial hate crimes were motivated by anti-white bias, with 64 percent motivated by anti-black bias.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters Friday afternoon that the Justice Department is providing “assistance” in the investigation in Dallas. She implored the country not to resort to violence and praised both police officers for bravely protecting protesters and protesters for trying to improve their country. “To our brothers and sisters who wear the badge, I want you to know that I am deeply grateful for the difficult and dangerous work that you do every day to keep our streets safe and our nation secure,” she said. “Our hearts are broken by this loss. And the Department of Justice will do all that we can to support you in the days ahead.”

The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation into the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge Wednesday and says it is “monitoring” the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota. Video showed Sterling shot repeatedly by at least one of two white police officers while he was on the ground. Castile’s fiancée said he was shot by an officer while reaching for his license during a traffic stop. The department has also investigated other racially charged police shootings, including the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In that case, the department cleared the police officer of wrongdoing but offered up a searing indictment of a police department that used racially discriminatory police tactics.

The department also investigated the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by a volunteer neighborhood watchman as a potential hate crime, but it ultimately decided not to pursue civil rights charges in the case.