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Obama says law enforcement complaints ‘personal for me because of who I am’

President Obama said the racially charged protests over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown are necessary as long as they remain peaceful because the "country's conscience has to sometimes be triggered by inconvenience."

In an extended interview on race relations and justice that aired Monday on BET, Obama cautioned that the demonstrations in New York, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere are "counterproductive" when they turn violent. But the mostly peaceful demonstrations are valuable to "remind society this is not yet done," Obama said of lasting mistrust between minority communities and law enforcement.

“A lot of people who’ve seen the Eric Garner video are troubled by it even if they have not experienced it themselves, if they are not African American or Latino," the president said. "Even some police officers maybe looked at that and said that was a tragedy. … We have to figure out how to bring an end to that tragedy. But sometimes attention spans move on .. and change doesn’t really occur.”

Obama, in the interview taped Friday at the White House, was making his first extended remarks in the wake of a New York grand jury's decision last week not to indict a white police officer in the choke-hold death of Garner, who was unarmed, in Staten Island last July. That came on the heels of a decision in November by a grand jury in Ferguson not to indict a white officer in the shooting death of Brown, a Missouri teen who was also unarmed.

The president said the fact that Garner’s death was captured on video meant that “it used to be that folks used to say, ‘Well, maybe black people are exaggerating or maybe some situations aren’t what they describe.’ We now see it on television and what everyone has the opportunity to see gives us an opportunity to finally have a conversation that’s been a long time coming.”

Obama, who met with youth activists from Ferguson last week at the White House, said their personal stories of being stopped by police “for no reason” made him think about “what it was like for me when I was 17, 18 or 20. What I told them was not only do I hear the pain and frustration of being subjected to that kind of constant suspicion, but part of the reason I got into politics was what I can do to bridge some of those misunderstandings. This is not just a black problem or a brown problem but an American problem. We take this very seriously.”

The administration has launched federal civil rights investigations into both cases, and the president has launched a task force, headed by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, to provide recommendations in 90 days about how to improve training to help police and communities develop more trust.

Asked about criticism that he has not addressed the crises on a personal level as the nation's first African American president, Obama disagreed. “I’ve been pretty explicit in my concern that this is a systemic problem. ... I described it in personal terms. I think what people are frustrated about is me not saying this is what the outcomes should have been. That I cannot do institutionally. My Justice Department is investigating cases. Part of the rule of law is I’m not putting the thumb on the scales of justice.”

“This not only personal for me because of who I am… but as president I consider this to be one of the most important issues we face because America works when everybody feels as if they’re being treated fairly,” he said.