WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama made a forceful pledge on Monday to use his last two years in office to address the “simmering distrust” between police and minority communities as he requested $263 million for the federal response to the civil rights upheaval triggered in Ferguson, Missouri.
Obama said he would set up a task force to study how to improve community policing with an eye toward building trust between law enforcement and communities of color. He also said he would consider imposing tighter controls on the proliferation of military-style weaponry and equipment provided to many police departments.
It was the most tangible response yet by Obama to the events in Ferguson. Protests in Ferguson and elsewhere have raged since a grand jury last week declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death last summer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
Also on Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he would release guidelines soon to limit racial profiling by federal law enforcement, a move long awaited by civil rights advocates.
Obama called for a sustained conversation in each region of the country on how to improve community policing.
“In the two years I have remaining as president, I’m going to make sure that we follow through,” Obama told reporters after a lengthy session with mayors and national civil rights leaders.
He vowed to address “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”
Those at the event emerged from the talks with Obama saying they believed he was serious about responding in a determined way to Ferguson, that their complaints have not fallen on deaf ears.
“I will gladly be calling the parents of Michael Brown and of Eric Garner in Staten Island to let them know what happened in the meeting, but what happens after the meeting will determine whether we just had a feel-good session or whether we’re moving toward change. I believe we’re moving toward change,” the Reverend Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, told reporters after the event.
Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man, died in July on New York’s Staten Island after being put in a police chokehold.
The $263 million would be spread over three years and would help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras that could help provide information about incidents involving police interactions. It would also pay to expand training for law enforcement in an attempt to build trust in communities such as Ferguson.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor who is a former U.S. assistant attorney general, will lead the task force on 21st century policing, officials said.
On Monday, protests triggered by the events in Ferguson stretched into Washington, where a group of protesters snarled morning traffic from Northern Virginia into the city by shutting down a key artery at rush hour.
In New York, a couple hundred protesters gathered in Union Square, hoisting signs reading “From Ferguson to NYC, end police terrorism” and “Ferguson is everywhere. Police brutality and murder must stop!” The protesters made their way to Times Square, with a handful arrested before the group dispersed by nightfall, according to Lieutenant John Grimpel of the New York Police Department.
Also on Monday, the White House released the results of a months-long review into whether community police need some of the military-style weaponry and hardware sent to police departments nationwide since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The review found a lack of consistency in how federal programs provide such equipment. As a result, Obama ordered his staff to develop recommendations within 120 days on how to provide greater oversight, such as requiring local civilian approval of such acquisitions.
“We’ve found that in many cases these programs actually serve a very useful purpose. What is needed, however, is much greater consistency in oversight of these programs,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Julia Edwards in Washington, and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott, Susan Heavey and Leslie Adler