Crime still low, says Obama, noting intense police scrutiny

U.S. President Barack Obama greets people as he arrives at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Julia Harte and Julia Edwards

CHICAGO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday said violent crime rates in the United States remain low even as police officers come under increased scrutiny in the post-Ferguson, camera-phone era.

In remarks to a global conference for law enforcement leaders in Chicago, Obama said data from across the nation "shows that we are still enjoying historically low rates" of violent crime.

At the same time, the president told the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago: "With today's technology, if just one of your officers does something irresponsible, the whole world knows about it moments later."

Violent clashes between police and civilians in recent months in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere have shown such confrontations can erupt in hours into national controversies, with videos of altercations quickly going viral on the web.

FBI Director James Comey told the same conference on Monday that the fear of being accused of brutal tactics has sent a "chill wind" through law enforcement in the past year, making police less effective at cracking down on violent crime.

The remarks in Chicago came as Obama seeks support in Congress and among police chiefs for measures to reduce high U.S. incarceration rates and reform sentencing guidelines, particularly for non-violent offenders.

Obama pushed back against the idea that increased attention on police-civilian relations is compromising public safety and noted that minority communities' suspicions of police "don't just come out of nowhere."

"We've got to resist the false trap that says either there should be no accountability for police, or that every police officer is suspect no matter what they do," Obama said, adding that some cities, including his hometown of Chicago, have seen a recent upsurge in violence.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was formerly Obama's chief of staff, said last week that police have become reluctant to engage with suspicious persons out of fear of winding up on the news, The Washington Post reported.

Police attending the conference were divided on the issue.

Roger Tripp, a police captain in a small town in South Carolina, said he supports body cameras for police officers because "we need to show the public all the good things that our officers are doing."

Gary Cox, police chief in Cibolo, Texas, said increased attention to perceived police misconduct makes it hard "to reach quality candidates."

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alan Crosby)