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Are cops too often made out to be scapegoats? Obama says yes

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais

(Read caption) President Barack Obama speaks at the 122nd International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, in Chicago. Obama thanked the law enforcement leaders for the sacrifices they make and the work they do each day to keep their communities safe.

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Addressing a group of law enforcement leaders from around the country Tuesday, President Obama suggested that police officers don’t deserve the bad rap they sometimes face and that they are too often blamed for social and cultural matters outside their control.

In his prepared remarks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Mr. Obama also made a case for tougher gun regulations as part of his broader criminal justice reform campaign. Inadequate gun laws, he says, are one of many factors that have lead American society to mistakenly antagonize cops as the culprit for inequality.

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“Too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and criminal justice system,” he said. “I know that you do your jobs with distinction no matter the challenges you face. That’s part of wearing the badge.”

According to IACP president Richard M. Beary, Obama’s appearance was the first time in 20 years a sitting president has addressed the organization.

Some members of the audience, however, might have been wary of the president’s stance on criminal justice. Just last week, Obama defended the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining that the activists address a real and entirely unique issue faced by black communities.

"I think that the reason that the organizers used the phrase Black Lives Matter was not because they were suggesting that no one else’s lives matter ... rather what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that’s not happening in other communities," Obama said Thursday at a forum for criminal justice reform. "And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address."

While some critics say Obama may be straddling a difficult divergence by defending both cops and Black Lives Matter, the president is not alone in trying to bridge this gap. 

Common ground can certainly be found on this issue, Doug Jones, former US attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and a member of the Law Enforcement Leaders To Reduce Crime And Incarceration, tells The Christian Science Monitor. Jones's organization is made up of more than 100 police chiefs, prosecutors, and attorneys general from across the country, and together, they aim to reduce incarceration and strengthen ties among police and their communities.

The media certainly exaggerates the divisions regarding criminal justice reform, Jones says, "but we are starting to have dialogue now, in which everyone is taking a step back and talking to each other instead of talking at each other." 

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"The problem that exists, it exists for everyone," he adds. 

In his speech on Tuesday, Obama echoed the sentiment that the media too often frames a narrative of polarization.

“I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities they serve – that frames any discussion of public safety around ‘us’ and ‘them,’” he said. “A narrative that too often gets served up to us by cable news seeking ratings, tweets seeking retweets, or political candidates seeking some attention.”

Obama's comments come on the heels of FBI director James Comey’s controversial remarks about what he called “the Ferguson effect” – a suggestion that crimes have spiked because cops are afraid to do their jobs under the unfair scrutiny of the public.

The White House was quick to disagree. Press Secretary Josh Earnest said a briefing that the evidence “does not support the notion that law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities.”

Some police have also expressed dismay over Comey’s claim that cell phone videos and viral content threaten the competence of officers.

“Time and time again [Comey] generalizes about a segment of the population that he knows nothing about,” James O. Pasco Jr., executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told The Washington Post. “He has never been a police officer.”

In light of the collective – albeit polemic – frustration over the deaths of unarmed black men and the subsequent backlash against cops, Obama’s call for criminal justice reform may not be so divisive after all, suggests Jones.

Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, for instance, is just one organization of police figures who are also working towards bipartisan reform.

While he recognizes the tension between cops and activists taken with the Black Lives Matter movement, Jones says there's an upward trend of empathy.

"Law enforcement authorities are now realizing they need to do a better job in community relations. When that happens, everyone benefits."