President Obama hosted a marathon meeting at the White House on Wednesday with Black Lives Matter activists, civil rights leaders, police and elected officials, but emerged predicting more civil unrest in the wake of protests over shooting deaths of minorities by police and the assassination of five white Dallas officers.
The president came out of the nearly four-hour-long meeting unable to report concrete progress, saying “there are still deep divisions about how to solve these problems” of race, policing and accusations of excessive force.
“There is no doubt that police departments still feel embattled and unjustly accused,” Mr. Obama said. “And there is no doubt that minority communities, communities of color, still feel like it just takes too long to do what’s right. We have to as a country sit down and just grind it out.”
He predicted more anger and unrest in cities.
“Sadly, because this is a huge country that is very diverse, and we have a lot of police departments, I think it is fair to say that we will see more tension between police and communities this month, next month, next year, for quite some time,” Mr. Obama told reporters.
The meeting came with concern rising among Americans about race relations in Mr. Obama’s final year in office. A New York Times/CBS News poll released Wednesday night showed that 69 percent of Americans say race relations are generally bad, one of the highest ratings since the 1992 Los Angeles riots precipitated by the police acquittal in the Rodney King case.
In Texas, funerals were held Wednesday for three of the five white Dallas officers killed by a black sniper last week: Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Sgt. Michael Smith and transit Officer Brent Thompson. The two Republican U.S. senators from Texas introduced a bill that would make it a federal crime to kill a police officer.
Participants in the White House meeting said there was a sense of urgency in the room.
“This is about fear in the country, and it’s our job to make sure people feel safe,” said Terry Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “We hear it, we understand it.”
He praised Mr. Obama’s attention to the crisis, saying “you cannot question the president’s commitment on this issue.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said civil rights leaders “learned a lot about the shocking emotions that police have going to work every day.”
“And they felt our pain having to tell our children to be careful of policeman,” Mr. Sharpton said.
NAACP President Cornell Brooks said there will be more protests, and that the crisis takes precedence over the elections this year.
“We’re all committed to getting something done in real time,” Mr. Brooks said. “This is bigger than the presidential election, it’s bigger than anyone’s race for any kind of office because it has everything to do with people literally living and dying in the streets.”
One of the proposals Mr. Obama wants police departments to adopt in minority communities is called “de-escalation” training — calling for cops essentially to back off from confrontations.
“De-escalation training over time does appear to be correlated with fewer conflicts between police officers and citizens,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
But the administration can’t mandate such training for the nation’s roughly 18,000 police departments; it can only recommend it, and perhaps offer grants to departments willing to take part. A year after Mr. Obama’s task force on 21st century policing came out with its far-reaching recommendations for improving relations between police and minority communities, only 15 departments have signed up for the full program.
Bounce TV, a black-oriented network founded by Martin Luther King III, is calling on the Justice Department to make de-escalation training a requirement of all local law enforcement agencies receiving federal funding and equipment.
“We arm our police with weapons but we need to do better at arming them with the teaching and training on how they approach situations involving African Americans and how to de-escalate them,” said Mr. King.
Police officials say de-escalation training is nothing new, and that not every suspect responds favorably to empathy, soothing talk or another approach designed to lessen the chance of an officer or a suspect being injured.
Nate Catura, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said the training could be “beneficial if it’s done the right way,” but voiced skepticism.
“If it’s just some people talking to a group of law-enforcement professionals on how to properly speak to an African-American or how to de-escalate a situation, I don’t think that’s going to be received very well by the rank and file,” Mr. Catura said.
Among those attending the meeting were Police Chief Todd Axtell of St. Paul, Minnesota; Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Charles Ramsey, chair of the president’s task force on 21st century policing; Mica Grimm of Black Lives Matter Minnesota; Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens; and state Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, Maryland Republican.
Police shootings of two black men last week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and near St. Paul, Minnesota, have prompted widespread protests.
The White House said president invited Black Lives Matter activists to foster a dialogue with police.
“This is the president’s desire to bring people into one room that have a variety of perspectives to represent,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Even as Mr. Obama has tried to refute the perception that he doesn’t support police, Mr. Catura said the White House is dealing a “slap in the face” to police by refusing to illuminate the president’s house in blue to show support for law enforcement after the assassination of five officers in Dallas. He called the decision by the White House “outrageous,” noting that the White House was lit in rainbow colors last year after the Supreme Court affirmed gay marriage.
“I’m not surprised, but I’m very disappointed,” Mr. Catura said. “We have slain police officers that were intentionally targeted, they were assassinated … He states that he’s sorry for the police officers and the families, but his actions in this case speak louder than his words.”
The group requested the blue lights in a letter to the White House, but Mr. Earnest said Wednesday, “That’s not something that we plan to do at this point.”
He said Mr. Obama ordered flags lowered to half-staff in honor of the slain Dallas police, and traveled to Dallas Tuesday to speak at their memorial service and meet members of their families.
“There a variety of ways that the president and this administration have chosen to conspicuously demonstrate our deep gratitude and our solemn condolences in the aftermath of the shooting that claimed the lives of five police officers in Dallas last week,” Mr. Earnest said.
Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Texas Republicans, introduced legislation Wednesday that would make it a federal crime to kill a police officer.
“As our country continues to grieve following last week’s tragedy in Dallas, we must come together in support of those who risk everything to keep us safe,” Mr. Cornyn said in a statement.
The legislation, called the Back the Blue Act of 2016, would create a new federal crime for killing a federal judge or law enforcement officer, with a minimum penalty of 30 years imprisonment and the possibility of the death penalty.
“Law enforcement officers selflessly put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities, and in return they deserve our unparalleled support for the irreplaceable role they serve,” Mr. Cornyn said. “The Back the Blue Act sends a clear message that our criminal justice system simply will not tolerate those who viciously and deliberately target our law enforcement.”
The officers in Dallas were killed by a gunman who said he wanted to kill whites, particularly white officers. The officers were working at Black Lives Matter rally, protecting protesters angry at the Louisiana and Minnesota shootings.