President Barack Obama said he is committed to improving strained relations between police and minority communities Wednesday in the wake of two recent grand jury decisions that failed to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men, saying "we are seeing too many instances where people do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly."
The president spoke a little more than two hours after a New York City grand jury did not indict white NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, 43, who died after being arrested for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island July 17.
"This is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law. That’s a problem and it’s my job as president to help solve it," Obama said at a Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday evening that the Justice Department is launching "an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious" civil-rights investigation into Garner’s death. Federal investigators have been closely following the case all along, but wanted wait for the local proceedings to conclude before beginning their own probe, he said.
Interestingly, the probe will be led by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn — Loretta Lynch, the woman who has been nominated to succeed Holder as attorney general.
In a statement Wednesday night, Lynch said "the investigation will be fair and thorough, and it will be conducted as expeditiously as possible."
The decision not to indict Pantaleo was met with outrage by many, including politicians, who were baffled because the medical examiner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide and the entire incident was captured on cell phone video.
On Nov. 24, a Missouri grand jury declined to indict a white Ferguson Police Officer, Darren Wilson, in the fatal shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9. That decision set off protests that turned violent at times.
Obama said he typically does not comment on cases that are still under investigation. The president said he has formed a task force to help strengthen relationships between local law enforcement and minority communities, and that he is committed to investigating allegations of abuse or mistreatment.
"I’m not interested in talk, I’m interested in action and I am absolutely committed as president of the United States to making sure that we have a country in which everybody believes in the core principle that we are equal under the law," Obama said.
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