President Barack Obama on Saturday applauded the “outstanding work” of law enforcement as he called for criminal justice reform during a speech at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner.
“I just want to repeat, because somehow this never gets on the TV: There is no contradiction between us caring about our law enforcement officers and also making sure that our laws are applied fairly,” Obama said. “We want to protect our police officers. We’ll do a better job doing it if our communities can feel confident that they are being treated fairly. I hope I’m making that clear.”
Obama's comments follow accusations from Republicans -- and Fox News -- that the president and police reform advocates are stoking violence against law enforcement. GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) criticized Obama earlier this month for his silence about the so-called "war on police" that is allegedly ripping our nation to shreds.
“Cops across this country are feeling the assault,” Cruz said after he was asked about the death of Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth in August.
“They’re feeling the assault from the president,” the Texas senator continued. “From the top on down, as we see -- whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore -- the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement. That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all.”
But Cruz missed some important details in his critique. Obama reached out to Goforth's family in August and released a statement on the deputy's "unacceptable" death, vowing to continue highlighting the "uncommon bravery" the nation's police officers exhibit. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), another presidential candidate, also skirted this fact a week later, claiming that Obama’s “absence of leadership” was to blame for the violence.
“In the last six years under President Obama, we’ve seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric. Instead of hope and change, we’ve seen racial tensions worsen and a tendency to use law enforcement as a scapegoat,” Walker wrote in an op-ed for Hot Air, a conservative blog site. “This inflammatory and disgusting rhetoric has real consequences for the safety of officers who put their lives on the line for us and hampers their ability to serve the communities that need their help.”
But the truth, according to statistics, is that it's not any more dangerous to be a cop now than it has been in years past. In fact, 2015 is on pace to have near-record low levels of deadly violence against police.
Twenty-four officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty so far this year, according to Officer Down Memorial Page, an independent nonprofit that tracks cop killings. That's a 26 percent decrease from the same time period in 2014. And there have actually been fewer year-to-date shooting deaths of police officers in 2015 than in nearly every other year in the past two decades. The lone exception was 2013, when the FBI says killings of police hit a 50-year low.
These statistics follow a broader trend of declining rates of assault and deadly violence against police in the U.S.
The increasing focus on civilian deaths at the hands of police has sparked much of the current debate. According to The Guardian, officers have killed 845 people this year, 63 of whom were black and unarmed. The Guardian includes people who were shot, shocked with stun guns and struck by police vehicles, as well those who died in police custody.
These numbers have attracted attention because they're far above the official statistics traditionally released by the FBI. In 2013, for example, police shot and killed 461 felony suspects in justified homicides, according to the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report. Official numbers on homicides by police -- whether they're ruled to be "justified" or not -- have long been challenged as incomplete, and critics are questioning them again as the independently tracked total of homicides by police in 2015 approaches twice the official figure for 2013.
Obama also touched on this topic during Saturday's dinner.
“We can’t avoid these tough conversations altogether," he said, noting that the issue of police officers killing unarmed civilians is not new, just more well-known thanks to the proliferation of video cameras and social media. "That’s not going to help our police officers -- the vast majority who do the right thing every day -- by just pretending that these things aren’t happening. That’s not going to help build trust between them and the communities in which they serve.”
Obama then turned his attention to the broken criminal justice system, saying that it serves as a “profound barrier to opportunity” for many Americans. He mentioned the inmates he visited at a federal prison in Oklahoma who shared stories of how incarceration has reduced their opportunities for brighter futures and left their families without husbands, fathers, sons and brothers.
“Mass incarceration rips apart families,” the president said. “It hollows out neighborhoods. It perpetuates poverty.”
As most Americans focus on the 2016 presidential election, Obama said he’d be working on sentencing reform.
“It’s the right thing to do for America,” he said.
Watch Obama's entire speech below: