President Obama met behind closed doors for four hours Wednesday with 33 representatives from civil rights groups, law enforcement and state and local government, seeking to forge a consensus on how best to address racial bias in policing.
The extraordinary session came a day after Obama delivered remarks in Dallas that honored the five police officers killed a week ago during a peaceful protest that came in response to recent shootings of two African American men in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul, Minn. On Thursday, the president is scheduled to participate in a town-hall event on race that will be simultaneously televised on ESPN and ABC.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday after the meeting, the president said the tensions between many police departments and the communities they police will continue for some time.
“As I said yesterday, I do not want to gloss over the fact that not only are there very real problems, but there are still deep divisions about how to solve these problems,” he said. “We have to, as a country, sit down and just grind it out, solve these problems. And I think if we have that kind of sustained commitment, I’m confident we can do so.”
The list of invitees included four mayors, five chiefs of police and more than half a dozen civil rights leaders. Some of those attending hailed from communities that have experienced violence in the past couple of weeks, including Pastor Frederick Haynes of South Dallas’s Friendship-West Baptist Church and Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul. Others hailed from cities and states with large minority populations, such as Los Angeles, Newark, Georgia and Maryland.
As Obama spoke, the group of men and women dressed in everything from police uniforms to three-piece suits sat around a large rectangular table in an Eisenhower Executive Office Building conference room.
“And I want to emphasize that there’s still a diversity of views around this table,” the president said. “That was by design.”
Maryland Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R), one of the participants, said in an interview that Obama asked “everybody to be honest and frank, and that’s what we were.”
African American activists spoke about racial profiling, according to several participants, while law enforcement officials and some politicians spoke of the need for protesters to demonstrate more respect.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of the black political advocacy group ColorOfChange, said he and others challenged police officials to acknowledge misconduct within their ranks.
“At some point, they need to start speaking up about bad cops to protect good cops,” he said. “I think they listened.”
In part, Obama convened the meeting to ensure that the issue of gun violence and racial inequities does not fade the way it often does once Americans turn their focus away from high-profile shooting incidents to other matters. On Tuesday, he lamented how quickly the public reverts to habitual complacency once it gets a little distance from searing events.
“And I’ve seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency,” he said. “I see how easily we slip back into our old notions, because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them.”
On Wednesday, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors announced they would work with the White House “to convene 100 community conversations on race relations, justice, policing and equality.”