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President Barack Obama offered words of solace to the families and colleagues of officers who died in the line of duty in an address Friday that occurred against a backdrop of increased tension between law enforcement and the minority communities they serve.
“We cannot erase every darkness or danger from the duty that you’ve chosen. We can offer you the support you need to be safer,” the president told a large gathering at the National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol. “We can make the communities you care about and protect safer, as well. We can make sure that you have the resources you need to do your job. We can do everything we have to do to combat the poverty that plagues too many communities in which you have to serve.”
Last year saw an increase in the number of police deaths, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a Washington-based non-profit group. The organization said 126 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty last year; up from the 102 officers who died in 2013.
While those deaths span accidents, illness and shootings, the president did highlight the high profile deaths of police officers killed recently in Hattiesburg, Mississippi during a traffic stop, in Queens earlier this month while on patrol and late last year in New York after being gunned down in a car.
"Your jobs are inherently dangerous," the president said. "The reminders are too common."
The Obama administration has also been criticized by some in law enforcement and civil rights groups for not doing enough to ease tensions.
Some civil rights groups say the Obama administration has rejected their suggestions to help reform police practices in the wake of fatal encounters between cops and black men in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. Those proposals include requiring that police officers wear body cameras or linking federal funding for local police departments to requirements all of their officers undergo racial bias training.
A task force on police reform created by the president to look into such matters called the adoption of body cameras “complex” noting concerns about privacy and cost in a recent report. The most controversial idea in the report may be a call for independent prosecutors to investigate whenever an officer kills a civilian while on duty.
In the meantime, the Obama administration — and especially Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was present for the memorial service — has much work to help build trust and, for some, rebuild credibility among the nation’s law enforcement community, Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director and president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund told NBC News recently.
Some members of the law enforcement community have felt under siege following the high profile federal investigations into the deaths of several black men while in police custody. The president has sought to bring federal attention to the relationship between the police and African-Americans, who had been angered by the police deaths and argued they illustrated deep discriminatory practices by police.
On Friday, the president acknowledged those concerns.
"We can work harder, as a nation, to heal the rifts that still exist in some places between law enforcement and the people you risk your lives to protect," the president said. "We owe it to all of you who wear the badge with honor. And we owe it to your fellow officers who gave their last full measure of devotion."
The president also expressed gratitude to officers for their hard work and sacrifices.
“On behalf of the American people, I offer the families, friends, and fellow officers of those we’ve lost my prayers and my deepest thanks," the president said. "We could not be prouder of them, more grateful for their service. We could not be prouder of you and all who work so hard to keep us safe”