WASHINGTON — America is “not even close” to where it needs to be in terms of resolving issues between police and the communities they serve, President Barack Obama said after concluding a more than three-hour meeting Wednesday with community activists, politicians and law enforcement officials.
Obama expressed optimism, however, and said the participants — who included members of the Black Lives Matter movement — agreed such conversations need to continue despite emotions running raw.
Obama has devoted his attention this week to the gun violence directed at police officers as well as shootings by police. The focus comes a few days after a black Army veteran killed five police officers in revenge for police shooting black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the Minneapolis suburbs.
On Tuesday, Obama attended a memorial service for the five slain Dallas officers and called the families of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota to offer condolences. He said he wanted Americans to have an open heart so that they can learn to look at the world through each other’s eyes, and Wednesday’s meeting followed that theme.
Obama said it would be key to repeat the “kind of respectful conversations we’ve had here” across the country.
“The conversation that took place around this table is very different than the one that you see on a day-to-day or hourly basis in the media,” Obama said.
But Obama also said the “bad news” was that making progress is hard.
“We’re not even close to being there yet, where we want to be,” he said.
The nearly three dozen people invited to the White House included some police organizations that have little regard for Black Lives Matter, a group they blame for inciting violence against police officers. White House officials acknowledged that enhancing the trust that has been frayed in so many communities will be a job for future presidents, but they said Obama was determined to get all sides to commit to steps they can take to improve relations.
Those attending the meeting included Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul, Minnesota, the two locations where police shootings sparked protests around the country. Mayors from Los Angeles, Newark, New Jersey, and Anaheim, California, also attended. From the administration, Attorney General Loretta Lynch joined the president.
“At a time when our country, when we are talking past each other, the president’s convening allowed us to hear one another,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Also on the list were Mica Grimm, with Black Lives Matter Minnesota, and DeRay Mckesson, who was arrested Saturday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on a charge of obstructing a highway. Police said Mckesson “intentionally” placed himself in the road after protesters were repeatedly warned to remain on private property or the curb. Mckesson was released from jail Sunday. The Rev. Al Sharpton also attended.
“We learned a lot about the shocking emotions that police have going to work every day and they felt our pain of having to tell our children to be careful of policemen,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton said the talk, however, must lead to change. When it comes to shootings by police, “they can’t be right every time,” he said.
Police groups and activists emerged from the meeting saying they didn’t always agree with each other on the issues, but they did agree the meeting was productive and could lead to building trust and improving accountability in police departments.
“From the law enforcement perspective, we hear it, we understand it,” said Terry Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “I think that too often we comment about statistics. This isn’t about statistics from one side or another. This is about emotion. This is about people’s lives. This is about fear in the community and it’s our job to make people safe.”
Cunningham said the Dallas Police Department exemplified that commitment to their community when officers used themselves as human shields to protect bystanders from possibly being shot.
Obama also took to Facebook to encourage more participation. “Going forward, I want to hear ideas from even more Americans about how we can address these challenges together as one nation. That means you,” Obama said.
He called on people to submit their stories and ideas.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.