DALLAS — President Barack Obama arrived at a memorial service here Tuesday to address another city heartbroken by a mass shooting, seeking to comfort a nation mourning the deaths of five officers while protests over policing have continued in cities across the country.
Obama, speaking to a packed hall just a mile from where the gunman opened fire last week, invoked the names of the five police officers killed in the shooting rampage, describing details about each of their lives.
“Your work, the work of police officers across the country, is like no other,” Obama said to a crowd filled with law enforcement officers from across the state and beyond. “From the moment you put on that uniform, you have answered a call that at any moment, even in the briefest interaction, may put your life in harm’s way.”
Consoling a nation after a violent episode has become familiar ground for Obama, whose presidency has been marked by tragedies and attacks in places such as a school in Newtown, Conn.; a church in Charleston, S.C; an office holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif.; and many others.
“I’m not naive,” Obama said. “I’ve spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families that lost a loved one to senseless violence.”
Obama said he has seen how inadequate words can be at spurring change, but said that if America “is to honor these five outstanding officers we lost,” then the country must be honest about confronting its challenges going forward.
He rejected any suggestion that all police are biased or bigoted and pilloried people who, with their words, call for violence against officers. But he said that even though race relations have improved dramatically, “we know that bias remains.” Still, Obama said that people simply cannot dismiss protesters and those questioning law enforcement tactics.
Obama echoed what the Dallas police chief said a day earlier about officers being asked to take on too much, saying that too great a burden is placed on police departments.
“We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience,” he said. “‘Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own piece of mind,’ and then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.”
His remarks about the shooting in Dallas — what he called “an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred” — also touched on the protests and unrest elsewhere. These comments arrive during a moment of intense tension nationwide, anxiety that a former police chief in Washington and Philadelphia compared this week to “a powder keg” heading into the summer presidential conventions.
Obama’s visit to Dallas comes as the country remains on edge after a three-day stretch last week in which fatal shootings by and of police gripped the nation, inflaming the debate over race and policing — and even at the service, some officers shaken by last week’s shooting said they were keeping an eye out for possible escape routes.
Five seats in the service were left open in memory of the officers killed in Dallas last week, reserved for those who “died for that cause” of protecting others, Mayor Mike Rawlings said during his remarks.
Before Obama spoke, he was introduced by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who quoted the Stevie Wonder song “As” in remarks aimed at the relatives of the fallen officers. When Obama spoke after Brown, he began his address by saying, “I’m so glad I met Michelle first, because she loves Stevie Wonder,” prompting laughter inside the hall.
Obama was joined on stage by former president George W. Bush, making a rare public appearance; the 43rd president, a former governor of Texas, moved to Dallas after leaving the White House.
“Today the nation grieves,” Bush said during his remarks. “But those of us who love Dallas and call it home have had five deaths in the family.”
Bush listed the five officers by name, including a detail about each of them, saying that these officers had accepted a calling that set them apart from others.
“All of us feel a sense of loss, but not equally,” Bush said, before directly addressing the families of those officers who were killed. “Your loss is unfair. We cannot explain it. We can stand beside you and share your grief.”
Bush invoked the country’s raw divisions, saying that the country should not be united by grief or fear.
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, and this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose,” Bush said.
During the flight to Dallas, Obama was joined on the plane by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. While on Air Force One, Obama called family members of Alton Sterling, the man fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge last week, and Philando Castile, the man slain in Minnesota a day later. He used the calls to offer condolences to them on behalf of the American people, Earnest said Tuesday.
Rawlings, the Dallas mayor, arrived at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall about 90 minutes before the memorial service was scheduled to begin. “We are all brothers today,” Rawlings said as he was ushered into the hall.
On one side of the hall, hundreds of police officers, mostly wearing black, hugged and took photographs with each other as they waited to be allowed inside the building.
Inside the hall, rows of seats were reserved for police officers as five poster sized photographs of the officers killed sit on the stage. Meanwhile a large choir about 200 black, white, Asian and Latino voices rehearse backstage to “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Officers from across Texas came out to support their fallen colleagues, dressed in full regalia as a mark of respect, their black uniforms accompanied by badges with black ribbons across them. These ribbons had the word “Dallas” written on them in large, white letters.
All attendees were also given a blue and yellow satin sash they were wearing over over their shoulders and across their chests. The mood inside evoked a funeral that offers a chance at a reunion, as officers hug and greet one another.
“It reminds us that it could be any one of us, of our brothers and sisters in law enforcement who are out every day,” Lorenzo Garza, a deportation officer with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Tuesday.
Quentin Draper, a pastor at the Spirit and Truth Church in nearby Oak Cliff, said the president’s visit was “right on time.” Draper said the children of his parish had been markedly affected by the chaos of the last week.
“Many of our kids are quite afraid so we’re spending time talking to them about the importance of law enforcement and the importance of our relationship with law enforcement,” Draper said, standing alongside his young daughter.
Security at the symphony hall was tight, as it has been for most vigils in this city. Helicopters circled overhead as Secret Service agents patrolled the perimeter. Several police officers said they had mentally checked for escape routes, fearing the worst.
Officers armed with assault rifles walked the perimeter of the hall, while outside, a fire truck hung a large American flag.
In Dallas, the attack on police during a peaceful protest against police shootings marked a sudden, violent intersection of two issues that have dominated the country during Obama’s presidency: Outrage over how police use force, particularly deadly force, and the unending string of mass shootings that have brought Obama to cities such as San Bernardino; Roseburg, Ore.; Charleston; and, most recently, Orlando.
Obama’s remarks Tuesday — addressing the single deadliest day for law enforcement since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – came on the one-month anniversary of the shooting rampage in an Orlando nightclub, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Over the weekend, Obama said that even in the face of the mass shooting in Dallas and the still-roiling protests elsewhere, he believed the country was not irreparably fractured.
“As painful as this week has been, I firmly believe that America is not as divided as some have suggested,” he said during a NATO summit in Warsaw.
In recent days, demonstrations have broken out from New York to San Francisco after deaths of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, evoking the protests that erupted after deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore in recent years.
Protesters in Atlanta staged a sit-in in front of the governor’s mansion late Monday. In Baton Rouge – one of the main flash points – the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana complained Monday of police using “violent, militarized tactics” that have included more than 200 arrests in recent days.
“As we grapple with the aftermath of these events, the Department of Justice will continue to do everything in our power to build bonds of trust and cooperation between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Tuesday during congressional testimony, according to her prepared remarks. “That work has never been more difficult – or more important.”
The interfaith memorial service honored the officers killed when a gunman, 25-year-old Micah Johnson, opened fire last Thursday during a peaceful rally downtown.
Before he was killed by a robot-carried bomb, police say Johnson told them he was angry about recent police shootings and wanted to kill white police officers. They also say he claimed to have placed explosives in Dallas, though none have been located.
Obama was also joined Tuesday by the First Lady and Vice President Biden as well as former president Bush and his wife, Laura Bush. The president, who has restated calls for stricter gun control following the Dallas killings, also plans to meet the families of the slain policemen and others who were wounded, the White House said Sunday.
“It’s been a tough week for our country,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Monday. “And the president recognizes that it’s not just people in Dallas who are grieving, but people all across the country who are concerned about the violence that so many Americans have witnessed in the last week or so.”
Over the course of three days last week, a man was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge; a man was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn.; and five police officers in Dallas were gunned down by an attacker who said he was enraged by recent police shootings. Parts of all three incidents, or the aftermaths, were captured in videos that were widely viewed on social media and cable news.
Earnest acknowledged that Obama was speaking not just about the events that have gripped national attention in recent days, but also against a backdrop of repeated violence in cities across the country.
“The truth is, this is violence that we’ve been witnessing not just in the last week but far too often over the last several years,” Earnest said. “And I think many Americans are troubled by it. And the president is hoping to offer some measure of comfort.”
At the same time, Obama is seeking this week to reopen dialogue with police agencies and other groups on ways to rebuild trust among African American and other communities.
On Monday, Obama met for nearly two hours with leaders of eight law enforcement groups, informing them that he considered the killing of the five police officers in Dallas “a hate crime” and that he would work actively to serve as an intermediary between minority activists and police.
“I’m your best hope,” Obama remarked at one point, according to the Fraternal Order of Police’s James O. Pasco, one of the meeting’s attendees.
Brittany Packnett, a Black Lives Matter activist and member of the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said in an interview that Obama could use his remarks as a way to address both the racial inequities that exist today and the concerns police officers have about their own safety.
“What we are talking about is, how do we create a society that replaces order with justice so that violence is not the place where people feel they have to turn,” she said. “So they’re experiencing peace and equity every day of their lives.”
Even as the president was traveling, police in Washington were investigating a shootout involving officers after a series of incidents around the country in which officers came under what authorities said was targeted gunfire.
Five people were arrested in connection with the gun battle in Southeast Washington early Tuesday. Police said they believe the suspects had been involved in a previous crime, possibly an armed robbery, and were trying to avoid arrest, not retaliating against officers over the recent shootings by police.
“We don’t have information or believe that it was a targeted attack, or a planned attack on police,” said Dustin Sternbeck, the chief spokesman for the D.C. police.
Berman and Murphy reported from Washington. Louisa Loveluck in Dallas and Juliet Eilperin, Peter Hermann and Dana Hedgepeth in Washington contributed to this report.