Obama Puts Focus on Police Success in Struggling City in New Jersey

CAMDEN, N.J. — President Obama came here on Monday to celebrate the progress a revamped police force has made in building trust between law enforcement and the people of Camden, a rare bright spot in what he has acknowledged is an otherwise troubled relationship between the police and black communities.

But as the presidential limousine passed through street after street of decrepit buildings, stopping at a community center so he could talk to young black men and police officers, Mr. Obama confronted a set of problems that have helped define his own complicated relationship with the police.

Ever since he said in 2009 that the police “acted stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black Harvard professor who is a friend of Mr. Obama’s, outside his Cambridge home, there has been a sense among at least some law enforcement officials that Mr. Obama is not on their side, and is suspicious of them and disdainful of their culture.

As racially tinged clashes between black men and police officers have cropped up in cities throughout the country, Mr. Obama has tried to strike a delicate balance in condemning inappropriate police practices without making a blanket condemnation of their profession. Law enforcement officials say he has often fallen short.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of trust,” Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in an interview.

Too often, Mr. Canterbury said, the president has been quick to assume — and to say publicly — that police officers acted inappropriately. He added that only recently had Mr. Obama begun to even acknowledge the troubling stew of poverty and lack of educational and employment opportunity that made police officers’ jobs so difficult.

“There’s been too many incidents where he has made comments or members of his administration have made comments without knowing the facts,” Mr. Canterbury said. “He has certain views, and they’re drawn from his personal experiences and from the advisers that he has around him, but it’s a skewed view.”

The strains surfaced late last year after the killing of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and again last month after the death of another black man who had been taken into police custody in Baltimore.

But they are nothing new for Mr. Obama, who came of age as a community organizer in Chicago, where the same toxic mix of poverty, racial tension and lack of opportunity often boiled over into hostility and violence. The president, who spent his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii and attended elite schools, had a far different experience in his own youth, but he has talked about having felt racially profiled by the police as a young man.

From his earliest days in politics, as an Illinois state senator, Mr. Obama tried to forge close connections with law enforcement. Back then, he pushed for legislation to require videotaped police interrogations and prohibit racial profiling, managing to win the backing of police organizations for his efforts. Now, as he has watched the tensions boiling over in cities around the country, advisers say he is determined to find a way to speak to the root causes without scapegoating the police.

“Right now, police around the country are under an enormous amount of scrutiny and pressure, so emotions run high,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said in an interview.

“He has never put it all on the police,” she continued. “He’s responding because he appreciates the fact that law enforcement really does have the spotlight on them, so he doesn’t want to create the impression that they alone can solve some of these structural problems.”

Mr. Obama made the trip to Camden on Monday in part to rebut the notion that he is insensitive to the plight of police officers on the front lines of often-violent communities. The city attracted attention as a national model for better relations between the police and residents after replacing its beleaguered police force with a county-run system that prioritizes community ties.

“To be a police officer takes a special kind of courage,” Mr. Obama said, echoing remarks he made on Friday at a memorial service for fallen police officers. “We can’t ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about.”

The president announced Monday that he was barring the federal government from giving certain types of military-style equipment to local police forces and sharply restricting others, and called for a broader shift in law enforcement practices across the country, in which community connections and transparency are the norms and mistrust and aggression are the exceptions.

But even here, the changes have attracted criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey branch expressed concern on Monday that the shift in Camden has been toward more arrests and tickets for low-level offenses such as riding a bicycle without a bell or lights, disorderly conduct and failure to maintain lights on a vehicle. And of the 65 complaints last year accusing the police of using excessive force, about two-thirds were dismissed by the department.

“The significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses, combined with what appears to be the absence of adequate accountability for excessive force complaints, raise serious concerns,” said Udi Ofer, the branch’s executive director. Arresting more people for petty offenses, he added, “has the potential to create a climate of fear, rather than respect.”

The criticism highlighted how hard it has been for Mr. Obama to find the right balance in his relationship with law enforcement, with civil rights activists always ready to criticize him as being too lax about police practices and with the police themselves defensive about being singled out.

Mr. Obama has often enjoyed the support of law enforcement organizations when it comes to his policy agenda, including his efforts to enact stricter gun safety laws and an immigration overhaul. He won praise for creating a policing task force last year after the unrest in Ferguson, and for holding scores of open hearings where police organizations weighed in with suggestions, although he was criticized for not including a rank-and-file police officer in the group.

Still, some law enforcement officials said they had always felt that Mr. Obama had a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the police.

David A. Clarke Jr., the sheriff of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, said that he believed that Mr. Obama disdained the police and that it was because the president had grown up going to prestigious schools and did not understand the world that many police officers operate in daily.

“He is from that academic elite,” Sheriff Clarke said. “They sit in those ivory towers not understanding what goes on at ground level in these often difficult situations.”

That perspective has hung over much of what Mr. Obama has done since Ferguson. On Monday, as he announced the restrictions on military-style gear popularized after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said the equipment “can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message.”

Some police organizations heard a different message. Mr. Canterbury said the decision showed the president had a “naïve view of law enforcement.”

“Putting those on restricted lists and making it so you’re going to have to justify having that equipment gives the connotation that the police shouldn’t have that protection,” he said. “The fact is, a riot can happen in any city in America.”

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment