MADRID (AP) — President Barack Obama called Sunday for greater tolerance, respect and understanding from police officers toward the people they are sworn to protect, as well as from individuals who think the police are too heavy-handed and intolerant, particularly toward people of color.
“I’d like all sides to listen to each other,” Obama said as he answered a reporter’s question after meeting with Spain’s acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, during his shortened first visit to Spain as president.
It was the fourth straight day that Obama has commented on a series of distressing events back home: the fatal shootings by police of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, and a sniper attack that killed five police officers and wounded seven in Dallas.
His appeal followed the arrests of scores of people in St. Paul, Minnesota, during protests late Saturday and early Sunday that left more than two dozen law enforcement officers with injuries after they were pelted with rocks, bottles and other objects. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, an activist prominent in the Black Lives Matter movement was arrested Saturday night during protests in Baton Rouge of the fatal police shooting there.
Obama said violence against police by anyone concerned about fairness in the criminal justice system does “a disservice to the cause.”
He repeated that the vast majority of U.S. police officers are doing a good job, and said rhetoric portraying them as otherwise does little to rally support for the effort to overhaul a criminal justice system broadly recognized as biased against minorities.
“Maintaining a truthful and serious and respectful tone is going to help mobilize American society to bring about real change,” Obama said.
The president also called for balance from law enforcement. “I would hope that police organizations are also respectful of the frustrations that people in these communities feel and not just dismiss these protests and these complaints as political correctness,” he said.
“It is in the interest of police officers that their communities trust them,” Obama said.
The president traveled to Spain after attending a NATO summit in Poland, but the collective horror over the killings dominated most of his public appearances. Spain, nevertheless, was thrilled to welcome the first U.S. president to visit in more than a decade. Tourists and curiosity seekers lined some streets in hopes of catching a glimpse of Obama, and local TV aired live coverage of his movements and comments.
Obama was supposed to spend two days in Spain, but cut the visit to about a day because of the shootings.
“We’ve had a difficult week in the United States,” he told King Felipe VI before they met in private at the Royal Palace.
After meeting with acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Obama lauded the long-standing ties between the U.S. and Spain and complimented new economic policies that he said had begun to “bear fruit” in a country with an unemployment rate of about 20 percent.
Spain has also been gripped by political stalemate since December, with Rajoy unable to get enough support to form a new coalition government.
Rajoy thanked Obama for visiting and offered his condolences for the Dallas shooting.
Obama also expressed gratitude for Spain’s contributions as a fellow NATO ally, and for hosting U.S. sailors and guided missile destroyers at a naval base on the southern coast. A visit to the base, including an event with troops, was Obama’s final stop before he returns to Washington.
Shortly before departing for the base, the White House said Obama met with leaders of Spain’s main opposition parties.
It took the White House more than seven years to lock in Spain on Obama’s foreign travel schedule. But the state of alarm in the U.S. over the shootings ended up turning his first and only visit to Spain, the largest European country that had yet to welcome the president, into a rushed one.
“I was hoping for a longer stay,” Obama told Rajoy. Obama, who visited Spain in his 20s while backpacking through Europe, told Rajoy that he definitely will return as an ex-president because Spain’s food, culture and climate is “hard to resist.”
Superville reported from Seville, Spain.