U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a small crowd of Philadelphia officials and members of law enforcement Thursday that knocking down community mistrust of law enforcement is a priority for the Obama administration.
To further this mission, Holder is leading community discussions around the country with community members and law enforcement to help bridge the often fraught relationship between the groups. Philadelphia is the fifth city Holder has visited as part of the public relations tour, which will stop in Oakland, California, next.
“One thing I want to emphasize, though, is that the mistrust that exists in certain communities is real, and we have to concede that,” Holder told the mostly black group. “This is not something that’s made up. It is not something that’s a media invention. These are feelings that are real.”
Philadelphia’s U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger described how interactions with law enforcement can be complex. To illustrate his point, he recalled how police officers have questioned him as a suspect because of his race. Later in life, as a federal prosecutor, he had positive experiences with local police in advancing criminal investigations.
After about 20 minutes of comments, officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked members of the media to leave the room so that Holder and the group could have a “candid” conversation.
Mayor Michael Nutter, meeting with reporters following the closed-down discussion, called it “an extraordinary meeting … I don’t know that we’ve had this kind of meeting at this high level with so much focus.”
Asked about the level of candor, Nutter said it was necessary to keep the meeting closed so that comments weren’t spun into “half of a sound bite.” He said it allowed for the group to speak freely without the fear of being misunderstood by the public.
“There was no inappropriate language. No one attacked anybody,” Nutter said in jest. “But I think folks were talking about issues of race in ways that you generally won’t hear in most neighborhood meetings.”
Nutter said more should appreciate how poverty, education and issues of discrimination are tied to the proliferation of violence in Philadelphia. And it’s not just up to police to handle, he said: “Everyone has to be engaged and involved. Everyone has a role to play.”
City Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is co-chairing President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It was assembled following a grand jury’s decision to not indict the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Ramsey told the audience that he and the other members of the task force will be delivering policy recommendations to Obama by March. He said outlining specific ways in which training can focus on de-escalating situations, in addition to beefing up police staff, will likely be in the report to the president.
Outside, a couple dozen protesters assembled, some holding signs that read “black lives matter.” Others delivered spirited testimonials through a bullhorn about police brutality.