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At Memorial Service, Obama Explores Importance, And Pitfalls, Of Policing

Carlo Allegri
President Obama said police are public servants and defenders of the rule of law.

President Obama was in Dallas to take part in a service honoring the victims of last week’s attack. He was joined by former president George W. Bush, and a host of other dignitaries. The speakers didn’t just honor the officers, but addressed the importance – and pitfalls – of modern policing.

A choir filled the Meyerson Symphony Center with music meant to heal.

As Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings stepped up to the podium, he looked out on a sea of blue as police officers and law enforcement agents mourned their fallen colleagues.

“Five days ago, the soul of our city was pierced when police officers were ambushed in a cowardly attack,” he said.

Rawlings read the names of the five officers who were shot and killed: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Kroll, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa.

With their deaths, former President George W. Bush said Dallas is grief-stricken, heartbroken, and forever grateful.

“Most of us imagine, if the moment called for it, that we would risk our lives to protect a spouse or a child,” Bush said. “Those wearing the uniform assume that risk for the safety of strangers.”

President Obama praised these men and women as public servants, defenders of the rule of law. Obama said we ask too much of our police, and too little of ourselves. We disinvest in communities, the president said – leaving them rife with poverty and unemployment, with drugs and guns and unmet mental health needs.

“And then we tell the police ‘you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor,’” Obama said.

Most officers do their dangerous jobs professionally, Obama said. But despite progress, he said centuries of racial discrimination did not end with the Civil Rights Act – bias infects every institution, even police forces. He called on Americans to open their hearts and bridge divides.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
At a memorial service for Dallas law enforcement officers killed last week, President Barack Obama led the audience in holding hands and singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

  “Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous,” he said.

The crowd applauded.

Obama continued: “And the teenager -- maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents.”

Outside the Meyerson, as people streamed out, Dallas Police Det. Chris Anderson said he thought Obama was fair, if challenging.

“Any honest police officer will say that there’s always room for improvement to do things better,” he said. “And I also appreciated him looking at the other aspect of it too, that you can’t come out with hate. So I think that both sides need to figure out how to bridge that gap and get together.”

Officer Elaine Hassman, his colleague, said she felt appreciated.

“It’s good, it’s good to see the support all too often we don’t get the thank yous and so this is all very overwhelming,” she said. "It's not common."

Hassman says there was this moment at the end of the service – a moment that really moved her. The 80-strong choir launched into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As they sang, President Obama reached out to lock hands with Mayor Rawlings.

As the music swelled, everyone in the hall grasped hands with their neighbor, filling the aisles, singing along. It was Dallas, though scarred and hurting, coming together to start to heal.

Video: Watch Obama's Remarks

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.