President Obama said he has "complete confidence and stand fully behind" the Justice Department’s decision not to charge the white Ferguson police officer who killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, but criticized the police department for a "pattern and practice" of racial discrimination.
"If there is uncertainty about what happened, then you can’t just charge him anyway just because what happened was tragic," Obama said Friday during a town hall with students at South Carolina's Benedict College.
Darren Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Brown after a physical altercation in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. Several witnesses initially said Brown’s hands were up when he was shot, sparking massive and sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and across the country.
Those claims have not been proven, and Wilson said he feared for his life during the confrontation with the 18-year-old. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson, sparking further protests.
The Justice Department also cleared Wilson, concluding there was "no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat."
"We may never know exactly what happened," Obama said during a town hall at the historically Black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. "But Officer Wilson, like anyone else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and a reasonable doubt standard."
The president also addressed a Justice Department report released Wednesday that found the Ferguson Police Department had a "pattern and practice" of discriminating against black residents.
"It was an oppressive and abusive situation," he said.
"What we saw was that the Ferguson Police Department in conjunction with the municipality, saw traffic stops, arrests, tickets as a revenue generator as opposed to serving the community," Obama said. "It wasn't like folks were making it up," he added.
Two Ferguson city officials were suspended and resigned Friday, and one was fired after racist emails were uncovered in the Justice Department's report.
"Now our task is to work together to solve the problem and not get caught up in either the cynicism that says, 'this is never gonna change because everyone's racist.' That's not a good solution. That's not what the folks in Selma did," Obama said,
Obama’s comments come the day before he and the first family will travel to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in the 1965 march that helped lead to the Voting Rights Act. It will be his first trip to Selma as President.
"Selma is now," Obama said.
He told the young crowd that tomorrow’s speech will touch on "the meaning of Selma for your generation because Selma’s not just about commemorating the past, it’s about honoring the legends who helped changed this country through your actions today."
Obama also spoke about his program, "My Brother's Keeper," which aims to provide young men with mentors. Obama said one benefit of this program would be reducing gun violence. "It is hard to reduce the easy availability of guns ... it's still within our control to reduce the incidence of handgun violence by making sure young people understand that's not a sign of strength," Obama said.
"Young people in this country make me optimistic," Obama told the students. "I'm hugely optimistic about the progress we can make this year and in the years ahead because ultimately i'm optimistic about you."