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White House To Launch Task Force On '21st Century Policing'


At the White House today, a full day of meetings on reforming community policing. This, after days of protests over the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri. The jury declined to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old. President Obama said the meetings are the beginning, not the end of the conversation.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can make sure that police officers and the communities they serve are partners in battling crime, partners in making sure everybody feels safe, that we can build confidence and we can build trust but it's not going to happen overnight.

CORNISH: NPR's Mara Liasson is with us now and Mara, first of all, who did the president meet with today?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president had three meetings. First, he met with Cabinet members. Then, he met with a group of young civil rights leaders and then he met with a group of people the White House calls stakeholders. Those are community leaders, clergymen, law enforcement officials and some local elected officials, but no members of Congress.

CORNISH: Anything concrete come out of these meetings, specific calls?

LIASSON: Well, yes, actually, the president asked his Cabinet to draft an executive order in the wake of a just-completed review of the program by which local law enforcement get surplus military equipment - that's high-powered weapons, Humvees, mine-resistant vehicles - and the president wants this order to ensure that there will be a common standard for evaluating requests from local authorities for this kind of weaponry, for training the police to use it in a way that preserves civil liberties, and he wants a process to review incidents like the one in Ferguson. This review is not recommending cutting down on the transfers of these equipment. These are statutory programs enacted by Congress, but the White House is focusing on how they operate. He's also setting up a task force on 21st-century policing and the president is requesting that Congress give the administration $263 million, which would in part go to purchase up to 50,000 body-worn cameras. That's kind of a GoPro for the police. This is something that community leaders have been asking for, they're saying that if police had these cameras on their bodies, there might be a more accurate record of incidents like the one in Ferguson. Otherwise you're relying solely on eyewitness testimony - and as we saw in that grand jury, eyewitness accounts don't always agree.

CORNISH: Is there any sense that the president might actually go to Ferguson?

LIASSON: Well, the White House is not ruling that out, but they say they have no plans yet for him to go. The Attorney General Eric Holder has been there. He's going to Atlanta today and he's going to take a tour of cities around the country to discuss these issues. You know, race is a very fraught issue in America and particularly so when you are the first black president. Mr. Obama has made missteps before, for instance when he called the actions of the white Boston cop who arrested Harvard professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own house stupid. That led to the slightly awkward beer summit at the White House, but then in the Trayvon Martin case, the president was very eloquent and very personal. He said Trayvon Martin looked like a son he might've had. He spoke for the fears of all black parents and this time in the Ferguson case, Mr. Obama has been extremely careful. He's been very evenhanded. He's criticized the actions of some protesters who looted and burned, he said no civil rights law was ever passed because a cop car was overturned, but on the other hand he has tried to elevate this to a bigger issue, bringing presidential attention to a problem not just in Ferguson but all over the country, where there is no trust between minority communities and their police officers. He wants a broader conversation about community policing.

CORNISH: And Mara, very quickly, were there any law enforcement representatives at these meetings today?

LIASSON: Yes. Yes, there were law enforcement representatives at the last meeting and the 21st-century policing task force will have two co-chairmen and one of them is the police commissioner in Philadelphia.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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