Obama pushes for sentencing reform at law enforcement forum

Obama wades into 'Ferguson effect' controversy
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Obama wades into 'Ferguson effect' controversy 02:23

Story highlights

  • His remarks in Chicago come amid a broader push to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system
  • Obama says strict mandatory sentences are a waste of taxpayer dollars

(CNN)President Barack Obama warned Tuesday against cherry picking data to advance theories on crime, saying a hard look at available evidence is required as the country's leaders grapple with incidents of violence.

The President's remarks came as the White House continued to push back against the idea that police are struggling to tame crime because they're worried about coming under greater scrutiny in the social media age.
"We do have to stick with the facts. What we can't do is cherry pick data or use anecdotal evidence to drive policy or to feed political agendas," Obama said Tuesday, speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago.
    His comments follow a suggestion from FBI Director James Comey last week that some police feel restrained in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and that this change among officers could partly be why crime rates have spiked in some cities.
    Obama didn't specifically reference Comey's comments but his remarks come the same day that another video of a police action is going viral. The FBI launched a criminal investigation Tuesday after a South Carolina school resource officer was shown on video tipping a student's desk over and tugging her toward the front of the classroom.
    Obama was in Chicago to push for lawmakers to amend sentencing laws so fewer non-violent criminals are locked away for long stretches. He characterized strict mandatory sentences as a waste of taxpayer dollars and decried attempts to pit police departments against citizens.
    "I want to be as clear as I can be: I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities they serve; that frames any discussion of public safety around 'us' and 'them' -- a narrative that too often gets served up to us by cable news stations seeking ratings, tweets seeking retweets, or political candidates seeking some attention," he said.
    Saying it's "hard to believe" politicians would use divisive language about the police, Obama acknowledged the importance of addressing issues of policing directly.
    "That doesn't mean that things are perfect. It doesn't mean we shouldn't have a serious and robust debate over fairness in law enforcement and our broader criminal justice system when it comes particularly to communities of color," he said. "That's why I'm confident that in this debate people of goodwill can find common ground. And you've shown that there are specific actions we can take that will make a difference."
    In Chicago, Obama and his Justice Department released a guidebook for law enforcement officers based on recommendations from the administration's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The panel was convened after high-profile incidents of police brutality that prompted outrage among African-Americans.
    Last week, Comey had suggested that as cops feel restrained in the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri, unrest, crime rates have spiked.
    Expressing worry about spiking murder rates in some cities, he suggested the increase could be linked to a "chill wind" among police.
    In a rare display of intra-administration discord, the White House countered Comey's assertion that some police officers were backing off on criminals after Ferguson.
    Earnest said there was no evidence that police officers were "shirking" their duties given increased scrutiny on law enforcement.
    "The available evidence at this point does not support the notion that law enforcement officers are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities," he said.
    In his afternoon remarks, Obama will make another push for tighter gun control, a message that resonates in Chicago, where gun violence has run rampant.
    Opponents of greater restrictions on guns say the city provides an example of how tighter gun laws don't equate to safer streets.
    But the White House argues instead that Chicago is an example of how local gun laws don't go far enough in preventing firearms from reaching criminals.
    "The city of Chicago is actually (a) good illustration for why allowing local jurisdictions to put in place these gun safety laws doesn't work," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. "Because it's too easy for those with bad intentions to just cross the city line, or cross the county line to go and make a handgun purchase that they're prevented from making in some other jurisdictions."
    Obama has vowed to press for tighter gun laws after shootings this year in Charleston, South Carolina, and at a community college in Oregon. Previous attempts to pass tighter controls on background checks have failed on Capitol Hill.