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Additional reporting by Alysia Santo, Beth Schwartzapfel, and Christie Thompson
President Barack Obama said Thursday that the Black Lives Matter movement had given voice to the anger and discontent over policing and incarceration that has long been a fact of life in the black community.
“The African-American community is not just making this up…It’s real and there’s a history behind it,” the president said. “I think the reason that the organizers use the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. Rather, they were suggesting that there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that is not happening in other communities.”
Obama’s assessment of the country’s historical struggle with race and current debates over policing included references to his own experiences: “As a young man, there have been times where I was driving and I got stopped and I didn’t know why.”
At the same time, the president urged the public not to blame law enforcement for the country’s high incarceration rate — which disproportionately affects black communities — by explaining that the “problem of racial justice or injustice in society has been a running theme in this country’s history for a very long time.” He noted that historically black communities have also dealt with “under-policing,” and “everybody wants strong, effective law enforcement.”
The president delivered often passionate comments on the future of the nation’s justice system during an hour-long panel discussion in Washington with Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh.
The panel was hosted by The Marshall Project, moderated by its editor-in-chief, Bill Keller, and streamed live by Yahoo News. It took place before a group of law enforcement leaders who have publicly backed efforts to reduce the nation’s prison population and argue that this can be done without jeopardizing public safety.
The president warned against losing “the moment” — the current bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform — and urged the group of law enforcement leaders gathered to utilize current efforts to reduce punishments for low-level offenders, most of them charged with drug crimes, to pave the way for broader change. Congress is considering bills to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, and the Obama administration has promoted the early release of some of these men and women. “We’re trying to maybe start with some low-hanging fruit and then we get deeper into it and we figure out more of what works and what doesn’t.”
A significant reduction in the nation’s prison population will require shorter sentences even for violent crimes, and in state as well as federal prisons.
“Rather than think we’re going to solve this all overnight,” the president said, “I’m much more interested in a sustained, steady process.” He also called for better national data collection, adding that “we don’t really do a good job right now.“
The president’s comments are part of his current effort to make criminal justice a focal point of his final year in office, and he will be talking about the issue during events across the country over the next two weeks. On Wednesday, he spoke in West Virginia about ways to improve treatment for heroin and prescription-drug abuse.
But Obama also tied the current problems of the criminal justice system to broader national currents of inequality: “As a society, if we are not investing in opportunity for poor kids, and then we expect just the police and prosecutors to keep them out of sight and out of mind, that’s a failed strategy.”
The two law enforcement leaders on stage with the president asked the federal government to make more funds available to local communities and states for programs to divert the mentally ill and drug offenders from jails and prisons.
“The arrests aren’t stopping,” Beck, the Los Angeles chief, said. “But we’ve got to have somewhere for them to go. And it can’t just be 48 hours in the local lockup and then right back on the street corner where they came from.”
Other law enforcement leaders in the room agreed on the need for Congress to allocate money for states and local communities to offer more diversion programs. "We do rely on the federal government to be able to provide funding to get a lot of these things in place,” said Jim Peschong, the chief of police in the City of Lincoln and Lancaster County, Neb. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — a major driver of the nation’s rise in incarceration over the last two decades — gave grant money to states to keep some prisoners incarcerated for longer periods.
The comments of the police chiefs and prosecutors who watched the panel suggested how much the mood in some law enforcement circles has changed since the era in which that law was passed. “The greatest sin I committed was I silenced my critical mind as a young prosecutor,” said Dean Esserman, who is now the police chief in New Haven, Conn. “I did what I was told.”
Several of the law enforcement leaders watching Obama candidly agreed with his assessment of how tough criminal justice policies, many of which they enforced during their career, have led to the erosion of trust between members of their profession and black communities. Though the Black Lives Matter movement traces its history to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, it gained prominence after a series of deaths of black men at the hands of police officers, which the movement sees as connected to the history of racial inequality in the U.S.
“Until the 1960s and 70s, local law enforcement were the enforcers of Jim Crow laws,” said John Scott Thompson, chief of the Camden County Police Department in New Jersey. “We have a lot of ground to make up.”
Related Content from The Marshall Project:
The audience at the Executive Office Building in Washington will include law enforcement officials from around the country. The president plans multiple events across the country — including a speech before the International Association of Chiefs of Police — as Congress takes up major bipartisan initiatives to reduce the number of people in prison.
In July, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
Watch Below: Katie Couric’s interview with Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.