President Obama on Monday called on Congress to spend $263 million for police body cameras and better training, and for more monitoring of military-style equipment for police departments, in his first proposal to address unrest over the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Insisting he is determined to tackle “simmering distrust” between minorities and police in too many communities, Mr. Obama said the problem in the U.S. goes far beyond one town.
“This is not a problem simply of Ferguson, Missouri,” Mr. Obama said. “This is a problem that is national. It is a solvable problem. The president of the United States is deeply invested.”
The president said an unequal criminal justice system “means that we are not as strong as a country as we can be.” He dispatched Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to Atlanta to meet with activists, clergy, elected officials and police to begin “an honest conversation” to find solutions.
The president had a day of meetings at the White House with civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, and law enforcement chiefs. Mr. Obama resisted a call from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to go to Ferguson, although White House officials didn’t rule it out.
Mr. Obama ordered his advisers to draft an executive order to instruct the Justice Department and other federal agencies to work with civil rights groups, civil liberties advocates and law enforcement agencies to develop recommendations for reforming police departments within 120 days.
The president said he was concerned after meeting with youth leaders from Ferguson who “feel as if they are not heard or that the reality of what they experience has been denied.” He also said police officers have a “tough job.”
The White House said those recommendations could include ensuring that military equipment delivered from the Pentagon to local police has a legitimate law enforcement purpose, and might require local civilian groups to review and authorize a police department’s requests for such equipment.
The president is appointing Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who served as Metropolitan Police chief in the District of Columbia from 1998 to 2007, to head a task force with former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, a professor at George Mason University, to develop a draft executive order on “21st-century policing” within 90 days. The group will use data compiled by the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to examine “how to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust,” the White House said.
The only concrete proposal to emerge from the White House was the call for a pilot program to equip more police officers with body cameras. The parents of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson have demanded the use of more of the small, lapel-mounted cameras to record police on the job.
Mr. Obama is proposing a three-year, $263 million spending package that would include $75 million in the form of matching funds for agencies to buy up to 50,000 body cameras.
But the president’s actions Monday didn’t offer proposals to reduce the transfer of military equipment to police. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said most of the supplies are routine office equipment that is appropriate.
White House aides said a review ordered by Mr. Obama in August found “a lack of consistency in how federal programs are structured, implemented and audited” when providing police departments with military hardware.
The administration also said it might require police departments that receive such military equipment to “receive necessary training and have policies in place that address appropriate use and employment of controlled equipment, as well as protection of civil rights and civil liberties.”
The Defense Department has delivered more than $4.3 billion worth of equipment to police since the inception of the Pentagon’s 1033 program in 1997. It provides items ranging from office equipment and generators to grenade launchers and heavy armored tactical vehicles. The Justice Department and other federal agencies also provide equipment to police under similar programs.
Asked why the president wasn’t pushing harder to rein in the military weapons program or ask police departments to return some of the hardware, a White House official replied, “These are programs that Congress directed the agencies to implement. … Congressional intent is really at issue here.”
None of the equipment was involved in the shooting death of Brown by a white police officer in August, but top administration officials criticized the local police department’s response to protesters with the use of armored vehicles and other heavy equipment, saying it provoked more confrontations.
With protests persisting nationwide after a grand jury last week refused to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting, the president was trying to demonstrate his concern for what he characterized as long-term issues of mistrust between minorities and police departments. Some civil rights activists are urging the president to travel to Ferguson.
Mr. Jackson sent a letter to Mr. Obama saying that such a visit would demonstrate that the issue is at “the top of the national agenda.”
Mr. Earnest said the president wants the issues exposed in the Ferguson shooting to become “a national conversation.”
“It’s certainly one that is particularly relevant in Ferguson, but it’s relevant in communities large and small all across the country,” he said.
Mr. Sharpton called it a “historic meeting” and said Mr. Obama made a commitment to “put his full weight behind” the effort.
“We live in a country that we must support law enforcement but law enforcement must support justice,” he said.