As news came Wednesday that a grand jury has decided not to indict a New York City police officer in the choking death of 43-year-old Eric Garner this summer, President Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, argued that there's bias in the way law enforcement engages communities of color and asserted that it "is an American problem."
Interrupting his address at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, Obama noted in sober comments that while police officers across the nation have a difficult job to do, they can only perform effectively "if everybody has confidence in the system."
As of now, he said, that does not appear to be the case.
"We are seeing just too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly. And in some cases those may be misperceptions, but in some cases that's a reality. And it is incumbent on all of us, as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem, and not just a black problem, a brown problem or a native American problem," Obama said.
"This is an American problem when anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem, and it's my job as president to help solve it," he continued.
A nearly 3-minute video of the encounter between Garner and NYPD officers in Staten Island, New York, posted on YouTube shows Garner screaming, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe," repeatedly before falling silent as cops swarmed him this summer when he refused to be handcuffed after expressing surprise that the officers were harassing him for trying to break up a fight.
Obama explained that Attorney General Eric Holder would have more to say on the Garner case, but noted that he is taking steps to find solutions to the issue of bias in the application of the law in communities of color.
"My tradition is not to remark on cases where there may still be an investigation, but I want everybody to understand that this week, in the wake of Ferguson (Missouri), we initiated a task force whose job it is to come back to me with specific recommendations about how we strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities that feel bias is taking place," Obama said.
"We are going to take specific steps to increase training and to work with state and local governments when it comes to policing in communities of color [and] we are going to be scrupulous in investigating [cases] where we are concerned about impartiality and accountability," he added.
Obama further explained that he decided to address the nation Wednesday because he felt it was important for people know how he feels.
He explained that the Garner case "speaks to the larger issues that we've been talking about now for the last week, the last month and several sadly for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way."
"This is an issue that we have been dealing with for too long. It's time for us to make more progress than we've made. I'm not interested in talk, I'm interested in action. And I am absolutely committed, as President of the United States, to making sure we have a country in which everybody believes in the core principle that we are equal under the law," he said to applause.