Obama urges 'soul searching' after Baltimore riots

Obama said it was important for police to recognise that some have a problem in how they deal with criminals.

FILE: US President Bararck Obama gestures while making a statement at the White House in Washington, DC, on 2 April, 2015 after a deal was reached on Iran's nuclear program. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - For President Barack Obama, the riots in Baltimore marked the return of a recurring nightmare that continues to bedevil him: How to stop deadly encounters between police and African-Americans and the resulting race-related violence.

The first African-American president has declared again and again that Americans have more work to do to bridge the racial divide and carry on the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King Jr.

And Tuesday was no different. A day after riots in Baltimore, Obama gave a thoughtful diagnosis of the problem but announced no new initiatives and declared there is a limit to what he can do.

The violence followed the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died 19 April a week after sustaining a broken spine in police custody.

"I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there's some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we as a country have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It's been going on for decades," Obama said.

Obama has been struggling with the issue since protests erupted last year over the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. A grand jury decided not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson.

A task force ordered by the president recommended a series of measures in March aimed at building confidence between police departments and the minority neighbourhoods they patrol.

The recommendations, which included having police shootings investigated by independent prosecutors, have yet to be put in place and there are questions about how to pay for them, with the Democrat Obama facing a Republican Congress in no mood to approve much new spending.

Obama's proposal for $263 million to help purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for police and pay for expanded training has stalled in Congress.

With rioting against police and arson and looting erupting in Baltimore, Obama found himself again offering condolences to the families of victims and sympathy to injured police officers.

But he made a point of bemoaning Americans' tendency to focus on violence while it rages on their TV screens but pay little attention to helping find ways to help lift up impoverished communities.

"If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It's just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns and ...when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped," said Obama.

Obama, at a joint news conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said it was important for police departments to recognise that some of them have a problem in how they deal with criminal suspects of colour.

"There are some police who aren't doing the right thing," he said. Rather than close ranks, he said, some police chiefs have recognised "they've got to get their arms" around the problem.

The Baltimore riots have caused ripples among the Republicans who are jockeying for the party's 2016 presidential nomination.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a leading contender, said there needs to be a commitment to "the rule of law and to law enforcement" but that whatever happened should be investigated quickly to give people confidence in the system.