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With the bitter clashes in Ferguson dominating national airwaves, President Barack Obama again finds himself at the center of a racially-charged controversy, under pressure from those urging powerful action to address the situation while still facing the realities of the limits of his authority and the ever-present challenge of navigating America’s racial politics.
It’s familiar territory for the first black president. In a deeply personal speech at the White House after a verdict was reached in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, Obama promised to focus more on the challenges faced by black and Hispanic young men. That effort led to the creation in February of My Brother’s Keeper, a White House initiative intended to take on complicated, enduring problems, like the high rate at which black students are expelled and suspended from schools.
Now, the question is what Obama and his administration will do in the wake of the situation in Ferguson, where an emotional national debate about race, police power and the justice system presents an even more complicated policy challenge.
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As racial tensions heightened over the course of months after the death of Michael Brown, the town has at times looked like a war zone. Civil rights activists and even Republican Sen. Rand Paul have called for limiting or ending the program through which the Department of Defense gives local police departments excess equipment, including armored tanks, as well as funding police departments get from the Department of Homeland Security to buy new weaponry. Some activists have urged the creation of a national “police czar” to oversee local departments; others have suggested requiring officers both to undergo racial bias training and to wear cameras on their bodies when they are interacting with the public.
"We do need systemic reforms. If we don't fight hard for systemic reforms, we will find ourselves in this situation again," said Laura Murphy, the head of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said, “police brutality, especially against minority communities, is a national crisis and requires a national response.”
So far, Obama and his team have been mainly focused on keeping calm in Ferguson, as the president spent much of this brief address on Monday night urging both the police and protestors to avoid violence.
The president has been repeatedly asked over the last several days if he will soon visit the Missouri town. He has not directly answered, saying he wants to continue monitoring the situation in Ferguson.
But, reluctant to play the role of national healer, Obama’s style is to emphasis policy over symbolic gestures. He is more likely to decide to go to Ferguson if he can deliver a speech there that lays out some kind of real policy reforms. And it’s not clear the president has figured out those new ideas so far.
In his comments on Monday night, Obama described the problems that emerged in the wake of Brown’s shooting, as many other politicians and commentators have, but didn’t spell out a detailed policy response.
“I’ve instructed Attorney General Holder to work with cities across the country to help build better relations between communities and law enforcement,” the president said. “That means working with law enforcement officials to make sure their ranks are representative of the communities they serve. We know that makes a difference. It means working to train officials so that law enforcement conducts itself in a way that is fair to everybody. It means enlisting the community actively on what should be everybody’s goal, and that is to prevent crime.”
For Obama (or any president), the issues that emerged from Ferguson are challenging. The racial divide both in Ferguson and in other parts of the country existed long before the president entered office and will almost surely extend far beyond this tenure. Matters of police tactics, where Obama spoke of on Monday, are generally handled at the state and local level.
The federal government has limited power to make sure police departments have staffing that reflects their communities, to address allegations that some law enforcement officers scrutinize young black men more harshly than that of other demographic groups or to change the behavior of local politicians in Missouri who have drawn the ire of black leaders across the country.
Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argues that the federal government provides millions of dollars to local police departments, and they should use that money to force police changes, such as improved training on how officers interact with African-Americans.
Bome of these ideas pit two of the president’s constituencies against each other: police officers and African-Americans. As detailed in a recent BuzzFeed story, some local police departments strongly oppose ending programs in which they can get military-style equipment, arguing this weaponry helps them do their jobs. Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have backed down on this issue, unwilling to take on police departments in their communities.
The Obama administration in August said it would conduct an internal review of sending weapons to local police forces, and officials say that process is still on-going. Civil rights activists are urging Obama to use his executive power on this issue, as he has on immigration and other matters this year.
“The presidentially directed task force has reviewed the federal programs that support the purchase and acquisition of military equipment by local law enforcement agencies and is preparing a report to present to the President,” said Shawn Turner, a White House spokesman.
Obama, while weighing policy changes, is also trying to speak optimistically about the broader issue of race in the country in the wake of Ferguson. In an interview with ABC News on Sunday and then from the White House on Monday, he emphasized his view that racial relations are generally improving in America.
“We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I've witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change,” Obama said on Monday.