WASHINGTON—In a room full of police chiefs and prosecutors Thursday, President Obama offered a powerful endorsement for criminal justice reform efforts. But he cautioned that change would be slow, and stressed that law enforcement officers aren't the only ones to blame for the sometimes deadly relationship between police and black communities.
Obama also offered a clear takedown of the "all lives matter" argument, while at the same time encouraging Black Lives Matter organizers to "assume good intentions" among law enforcement officials and "not to paint with a broad brush."
"Everybody understands all lives matter," Obama said. "I think the reason why the organizers used the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' was not because they were suggesting that nobody else's lives matter, but because there's a specific problem that's happening in the African-American community that's not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we have to address."
Obama spoke at a forum at the White House hosted by The Marshall Project, a news site focused on criminal justice. Also on the panel were the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, John Walsh, and the Los Angeles police chief, Charlie Beck. In the audience were Attorney General Loretta Lynch and more than 100 local law enforcement officials and prosecutors, many of whom yesterday endorsed a broad platform to reduce prison populations and arrests.
At a time when criminal justice reform has skyrocketed to the top of the nation's political consciousness, Obama seemed to be trying to thread the needle between supporting police officers and reforming what he called a deeply flawed system of policing and incarceration.
"The overwhelming majority of law enforcement is doing the right thing and wants to do the right thing," he said. "Police officers have a really tough job and we're sending them into neighborhoods that are really dangerous and sometimes they have to make split-second decisions. So we shouldn't be too sanctimonious about a situation that may be ambiguous."
Obama said he felt that "we're in a unique moment" when it comes to criminal justice reform. He said he wanted to work with Congress to pass reforms, but cautioned that change would not happen "overnight."
"Incarceration is just one tool in how we think about reducing crime and violence," Obama said. "If we think that's the only tool," then we're missing opportunities for real change, he said.
The president was especially eloquent when he talked about the need to reduce sentences for juvenile offenders. "We know that young people do stupid stuff, as they get older they get a little less stupid," he said. "That, at least, was my experience. And now I'm watching my teen girls, and they're a lot smarter than I was but there are still some gaps in judgement."
But Obama said he wanted to start by only focusing on reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
"We are going to be a little more hesitant about how we're thinking about sentencing reform for violent crime," he said. "We will lose the public if we try to do everything at once without having the data and the evidence and suddenly you see big spikes in crime again and we're suddenly back at the politics of 'lock them all up.'"
He added, "I'm much more interested in a sustained, steady process where we're bringing people together, listening to everybody, and we're trying to start with some low-hanging fruit."
When he talked about the need to reform policing practices, Obama also invoked his personal experiences. "As a young man, there have been times where I was driving and I got stopped and I didn't know why," he said. ("I don't want to suggest that every stop was uncalled for," he added later, jokingly.)
He encouraged more community policing efforts, training for police, and data collection on police use of force. And while he heralded the Ferguson report released by the Justice Department, which offered broad suggestions to reform racist policing practices, Obama stressed that he thought blaming only police officers for problems was misguided.
"The criminal justice system and our law enforcement systems are a reflection of us," he said. "We can't put the entire onus of the problem on law enforcement… I want to make sure that when we approach this issue, we recognize that it's not all on the police and everybody else can just sit back and opine."
Unprompted, Obama jumped into his discussion about Black Lives Matter and "all lives matter" at the end of his speech. Even as he seemed to counsel activists not to alienate police officers, he stood up for the protest group.
"The African-American community's not just making this up," he said. "It's not just something being politicized. It's real and there's a history behind it."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.