President Barack Obama mourned the deaths of two black men who were shot by police officers this week, pointing to their killings as evidence of larger racial and cultural issues that he said should concern “all fair-minded people.”
“We have seen tragedies like this too many times,” he said. ”All of us Americans should be troubled by these shootings. These are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
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“To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness,” Obama continued. “It’s just being American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.”
A visibly emotional Obama delivered the statement from Warsaw, Poland, where he had just arrived aboard Air Force One for a NATO summit, his final one in office. He delivered his remarks, which expanded upon a statement he released earlier in the day, just after 12:35 a.m. local time.
Obama’s statement comes on the heels of two fatal shootings of black men by police officers on back-to-back days this week. Thirty-seven-year-old Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tuesday while two officers held him down outside of a convenience store where he was selling CDs. The next day, 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, during a traffic stop.
“When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feel as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same,” Obama said. “And that hurts, and that should trouble all of us. This is not just a black issue. It’s not just a Hispanic issue. It’s an American issue that we should all care about.”
Video of Sterling’s shooting was captured by onlookers with cell phones, while the aftermath of Castile’s death was filmed by his fiancé, who was sitting next to him in the car. Both videos sparked outrage on social media, Sterling’s death has already prompted the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to open an investigation. On Thursday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said he had asked the White House to open a federal investigation into Castile’s death.
“They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve,” Obama said of the shootings in his earlier statement.
The president drew a clear distinction between expressing concern over the shootings and not supporting the law enforcement community. Obama acknowledged that police work is a “dangerous job” but added that America’s criminal justice system is not without “biases, some conscious and unconscious, that need to be rooted out.”
“To be concerned about these issues is not to be against law enforcement,” he said. ”When people say black lives matter, it doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter.”
As he did in his statement, Obama said his task force on 21st century policing solutions has helped some communities make process in bridging the gap between law enforcement and the communities they patrol. But many law enforcement agencies around the country have yet to adopt the task force’s recommendations, the president said, something he hoped would change in the wake of this week’s violence. He urged more communities to adopt the task force’s suggestions and in particular suggested that law enforcement officers themselves push their local leaders to get behind the recommendations.
“Too often we’re asking police to man the barricades in communities that have been forgotten by all of us for way too long in terms of sub-standard schools and inadequate jobs and a lack of opportunity,” Obama said. “We’ve got to tackle those things. We could do better. And I believe we will do better.”