The Dallas Police Department had adopted a number of measures recommended by the Obama administration to reduce tensions with minority communities before at least 12 officers were shot on Thursday, five fatally, city officials and White House advisers said.
The shooting shattered a peaceful protest against the killing of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota earlier this week and left at least seven other officers injured. Police said they used a robot carrying a bomb to kill the gunman, who told them during a standoff he wanted to kill police officers and was upset over the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
Obama administration officials said the tragedy was heightened because Dallas has worked aggressively to improve relations between its police and minorities and to address concerns about racial disparities within the criminal justice system. The attack threatened to inflame debate over relations between police and minority communities, as well as partisan disputes over Obama’s response to the deaths of unarmed black civilians at the hands of law enforcement.
The Dallas department is “a role model for community policing,” Jerry Abramson, director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House, said on Twitter on Friday.
“We must continue working to build trust between communities and law enforcement,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters at the Justice Department in Washington on Friday. “We must continue working to guarantee every person in this country equal justice under the law.”
The dead gunman was identified Friday by Dallas police as 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson. He served in the Army Reserve from 2009 to 2015, a stint that included a deployment to Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
Some Republicans suggested on Friday that Obama’s rhetoric had contributed to the incident. Obama has frequently decried unjustified deaths of people in police custody while also emphasizing his support for law enforcement, including early Friday morning, when he remarked on the Louisiana and Minnesota shootings just hours before the attack in Dallas.
“When incidents like this occur, there’s 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 after arriving in Warsaw, where he’s attending a NATO summit. Police, he added, “have a right to go home to their families just like anybody else on the job. And there are going to be circumstances in which they have to make split-second decisions. We understand that.”
Representative Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican and former U.S. attorney, accused Obama of dividing the country.
“Instead of unifying and bringing our country together, too many of our leaders, including our president, have been the driving force in dividing us and pitting our citizens against one another,” Marino said in a statement. “Some of this rhetoric has vilified our law enforcement to the point where individuals believe it is OK to commit mass murder against this community.”
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, tweeted that the shooting "has roots in first of anti-white/cop events illuminated by Obama...Officer Crowley. There were others."
He was referring to an incident in 2009, when Obama invited Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Massachusetts, police sergeant James Crowley to the White House for beers to soothe tensions after Crowley arrested Gates on a disorderly conduct charge that was later dropped. Obama said at the time that Crowley "acted stupidly," drawing criticism from Cambridge police unions and Republicans.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in Warsaw that Obama believes criticism of failings by some police does not tar the majority who do a good job.
"The president was quite direct today, and not for the first time, there is never justification for inciting violence," Earnest said.
‘Sense of Rage’
Obama created a task force in December 2014 to examine U.S. police practices and recommend changes following the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police in New York, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri. The panel was 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. Its members included civilians and law enforcement officials.
Robinson said she doubted the Dallas attack could be connected to the practices of the city’s police department, which she praised for embracing some of the changes Obama’s task force recommended.
“We have a national media, and the sense of rage about what happened in Baton Rouge or Minneapolis-St. Paul can be like it happened to your neighbor,” Robinson said. “You can have somebody who is a little bit nutty -- I hate police, I hate this, I hate that -- and they have access to guns.”
As of this spring, she said, at least 50,000 U.S. law enforcement officers had received training recommended by the task force.
“It takes a long time for both the culture to change, for training to really change the day-to-day policing, and for that training to reach the front lines,” Robinson said. “Getting that kind of buy-in takes a lot of work and commitments. And it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Sean Smoot, director of the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association and a member of Obama’s task force, said he expected the attack in Dallas would lead to retrenchment by critics of the administration’s approach.
“There will certainly be people who will use this to slow down or in some form thwart the recommendations of the task force,” Smoot said.
But he said that there were large protests in multiple cities on Thursday, after the Louisiana and Minnesota shootings, “and by all accounts I’m aware of, they were all peaceful in nature. It was not the environment we saw two years ago in Ferguson or Baltimore.”
In Dallas, the police force had gone to great lengths to improve its relationship with the citizenry. Dallas’s efforts include participation in two initiatives begun by the White House in response to police-involved killings.
The city had agreed to provide previously private data about encounters with police for the Justice Department to analyze. The program asked departments to reveal information about use of force, police pedestrian and vehicle stops, officer-involved shootings and more, with the aim of increasing transparency about bias in the criminal justice system.
The Dallas police had also agreed to turn over additional data to data scientists working with the administration to develop an early-warning system that could identify officers struggling in their interactions with civilians. The program aims to identify indicators that could help police departments intervene and direct officers to training and other assistance.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings defended his city’s police practices in an interview Friday with MSNBC, just hours after the assault on his officers.
“I think our strategy has been the right one,” Rawlings said. “We’ve had the fewest police-related shootings in any major city in the United States. Our crime has come down for the last almost dozen years. We did de-escalation training before anybody did it.”
Dallas police chief David Brown has required officers to undergo deadly force training every two months, rather than every two years. The department also changed its rules to forbid officers from pursuing suspects alone on foot.
Last year, the city began issuing body cameras to officers to record interactions with civilians. Some of the officers initially issued cameras had seen multiple complaints lodged against them prior to the program. The department says it hopes to expand the program from 200 officers to around 1,000 over the next five years.
The president has asked Congress for $263 million over three years to improve community policing, including $75 million that would, together with matching funds from local governments, supply as many as 50,000 body cameras for officers. Last year, the Justice Department said it would provide $23 million to law enforcement agencies in 32 states to test the impact of body cameras.
Obama said police officers had “an extraordinarily difficult job and the vast majority of them do their job in outstanding fashion” while speaking to reporters in Warsaw.
“We need to be supportive of those officers who do their job each and every day, protecting us and protecting our communities,” Obama said. “Today is a wrenching reminder of the sacrifices that they make for us.”
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