When it was announced late last week that President Barack Obama would address attendees at this year’s International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Chicago, what was always an exciting event on the law enforcement calendar took on a whole new dimension.

Buzz around the president’s address on the show floor over the last few days ranged from excitement to indifferent, particularly as the administration looks to reduce incarceration rates in the U.S. and reform sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenses. But in his nearly hour-long speech, the president’s remarks were not only pro-law enforcement, but frequently punctuated by robust applause from those in attendance.

He began by recognizing the service of Officer Randolph Holder from the New York Police Department who was shot and killed in the line of duty last week. The president recognized the sacrifice law enforcement – and their families – make by answering the call to service. “I want to start by saying, on behalf of the American people, ‘thank you.’”

The president then went on to add that it is law enforcement’s dedication that has led to a dramatic drop in violent crime in the U.S. His appreciation was punctuated by one of his most powerful points addressed to those who believe he is not supportive of law enforcement. “I want to be as clear as I can be: I reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and the communities that they serve,” he said. “I reject a storyline that says, when it comes to public safety, there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’”

With this notion at the forefront, the president insisted that this doesn’t mean we can’t have a “serious and robust debate over fairness in law enforcement; over our broader criminal justice system, when it comes particularly to communities of color.”

He was careful to note that law enforcement leadership is willing to engage in this conversation and confront issues of racial bias, and certainly the sessions at this year’s IACP reflect this as well. The president added that communities of color want police in their neighborhoods, “That’s why I am confident that in this debate people of good will can, and should, find common ground.”

Despite historically low crime rates in the U.S., and a drop in the number of officers shot in the line of duty, some communities – including Chicago – have seen a spike in gun violence. “Of course, each victim of crime is one too many; each fallen police officer is one too many,” he said.

To stem these spikes in violence, the president noted his commitment to give law enforcement the resources they need to maintain the progress they have made to confront violent crime. “Those of us in positions of power have the obligation to give you what you need to do your jobs even better and to facilitate the conversations and reforms required to move us all forward.”

Specifically, he outlined three key strategies:

  • Committed resources for law enforcement
  • Criminal justice reforms that will make the system “smarter and fairer”
  • Common-sense gun safety reforms to protect officers

The president shifted the focus to communities of color and concerns about fairness in the justice system. He was careful to add, however, “At the same time, all too often, law enforcement gets scapegoated for the broader failures of our society and our criminal justice system.”

As he described, his goal is to be proactive on crime by improving the job market, education and drug treatment programs, noting, “Getting a teenager a job for the summer may cost some money, but it will cost a fraction of what it will cost to lock him up for 15 years.”

Citing the often referenced statistic that the U.S. is home to less than half a percent of the world’s population, but approximately 25 percent of its prisoners, the president renewed a call for sensible criminal justice reforms. “It is possible for us to come up with strategies that effectively reduce the damage of the drug trade without relying solely on incarceration.” He noted many states have seen prison populations and crime rates fall and suggested a renewed focus on issues like job training, mental health and addiction treatment – issues many police chiefs have pushed for.

“If rehabilitation programs help a prisoner become a skilled worker instead of a hardened criminal, you are less likely to have to arrest that person again, and again, and again, and again.”

By the president’s own admission, there will always be areas that will have higher crime rates than others, and that the tensions between law enforcement and communities of color are real. But it is in these instances where community policing can be more effective, and we can all work together to confront crime. He reminded attendees that this will require us all to have some challenging conversations. “The data shows that this is not an aberration, it doesn’t mean that each case is a problem, it means that when you aggregate all the cases and you look at it, you’ve got to say that there’s some racial bias in the system.”

It was this notion that led to the creation of the president’s task force of 21st century policing, which included recommendations from law enforcement, civil rights activists – including protesters from Ferguson, Mo. – to help lead to a fair justice system. This led to a call for community outreach, supported by data, to restore trust. “In all of these efforts, the goal was to get the community involved before a crime takes place; to build trust before a crisis erupts. And officers then feel more welcomed in their communities, citizens are more likely to cooperate with police and that makes us all safer.”

The president acknowledged this would be a challenging task, but the sense was that law enforcement is more than capable to rise to the challenge.

His final point addressed the need to prevent violent criminals from acquiring deadly firearms, including national criminal background checks for people looking to purchase a gun – a policy the IACP supports. “It’s risky enough responding to a domestic violence call or a burglary in progress without having to wonder if the suspect is armed to the teeth and maybe has better weapons than you do.” He then cited that police officers are three times more likely to be murdered in states with higher-levels of gun ownership than those with lower levels. In the end, the president noted his commitment to protecting the lives of law enforcement, and citizens, alike.

“If we take some of the actions I’ve just talked about, then we will be able to help you do what you do every day, which is save people’s lives,” he concluded. “We’ll be able to make sure that the society is a partner with law enforcement; that we’re not just sending you out there to do dirty work and then hanging you up to dry if it doesn’t work out well, but then instead, we are all working together, tackling these hard problems.”

The president’s full speech can be seen below:

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