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Obama Treads Thin Blue Line in Addressing Tension With Police

Obama has walked a fine line as he praises law enforcement officers, while acknowledging the tension felt by the minority communities they serve.
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President Barack Obama has been forced to walk a fine line this week as he praises law enforcement officers for the dangerous job they do, while acknowledging the tension felt by the minority communities they serve.

It’s a delicate balance made all the more tenuous after riots in Baltimore underscored the friction. The Obama administration has raced to balance the concerns of minority communities who have felt ignored and law enforcement that has felt underappreciated.

It hasn’t been an easy task.

On Monday, the administration sought to assuage the concerns of minority communities when it announced the federal government will no longer provide heavy military equipment like tanks and grenade launchers to local cops following weeks of backlash against officers who confronted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in armored vehicles and camouflage last year.

"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there's an occupying force — as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them," the president said Monday, adding that such gear "can alienate and intimidate residents and make them feel scared."

A day later, the president signed into law the National Blue Alert Act of 2015, named in honor of New York Police Department Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were fatally shot in their patrol car in Brooklyn, N.Y., on December 20th of last year.

"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 on Friday.

The president has discussed the relationship between law enforcement and communities at three events in the past five days.

On Friday, President Obama spoke at the National Peace Officers memorial in Washington, honoring officers who had lost their lives in the line of duty.

Monday, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey to praise the force there for cutting murders and violent crime by rebuilding trust within the community.

Tuesday President Obama, surrounded by family members of two fallen NYPD officers, looked somber and serious in the Oval Office as he signed the "Blue Alert" bill into law to launch a nationwide program to alert law enforcement officers when one of their own is attacked.

“I’m sure the handlers and speechwriters are working overtime to find the right tone,” said Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director and president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

The White House acknowledged the issues surrounding policing are complicated.

“There is no question… that the kinds of policy considerations at stake here are extraordinarily complicated,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “But it’s not at all hard for the president to say, as he has on many occasions, how much respect he has for the vast majority of law enforcement officers in this country who are doing the right thing and doing a really good job.”

Sentiment among law enforcement appears mixed.

“I would give him an incomplete at this point,” said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Other law enforcement advocates agreed.

“I think his relationship with police right now is tentative and tenuous,” said Hosko.

Police unions and associations widely praised his signing of the “Blue Alert” bill into law, a measure they had been pushing for some time. However, the restrictions on the federal government providing military equipment did not go over as well.

“Police officers have the right to go home every night,” Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told NBC adding that such equipment, especially helmet and shields, is used to protect officers during major incidents, like riots. “There's no such thing as acceptable losses and police officers need to be protected as well.”

Several police organizations expressed concern over the equipment – being restricted, citing the nearly 100 officers injured in Baltimore during the riot.

But many also agreed that the prohibited items put on the White House list belonged there.

“Equipment that is more designed for war like bayonets and grenade launchers has no place in local police department,” said Chuck Wexler Police Executive Research Forum.

— Ron Allen contributed