WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, addressing the death of Freddie Gray and subsequent riots in Baltimore for the first time, said Tuesday that the nation must "do some soul searching" about underlying causes of poverty and crime in often-overlooked city neighborhoods.
Speaking at a previously scheduled news conference a day after violence erupted less than 40 miles from the White House, Obama described the rioters throwing rocks at police and setting cars on fire as "criminals" and "thugs." He said they distracted from peaceful protesters who were raising "legitimate concerns."
Obama spoke for nearly 15 minutes — passionately, at times — about the root causes of the tension that has erupted between the police and predominantly African-American communities across the country, though he offered few ideas on how to implement solutions tosome of those fundamental problems.
"This has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn't pretend that it's new," Obama said in the Rose Garden during an appearance with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
"If we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without, as a nation and as a society, saying, 'What can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity,' then we're not going to solve this problem," he said.
Obama, who has frequently confronted difficult questions about race and policing during his presidency, at one point apologized to Abe for his discussion of the situation in Baltimore. "I'm sorry, Mr. Prime Minister," the president said, "but this is a pretty important issue for us."
The president stressed that the White House has limited power to address deeper causes of poverty and crime on its own. He said his administration wants to boost funding for early education, invest federal dollars in poor neighborhoods and reform the criminal justice system, but that many of those ideas have met with resistance in Congress.
"I'm under no illusion that out of this Congress we're going to get massive investments in urban communities, and so we'll try to find areas where we can make a difference," Obama said.
He said he could not "federalize every police force in the country" and force officers to retrain.
"But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could," he said. "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 we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped."
The president faced criticism from some in his own party last year when he decided against visiting Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting of Michael Brown and unrest there. Obama did not say Tuesday whether he intends to visit Baltimore.
Obama appointed a task force last year to study policing issues. The group released a report in March that called for more data collection as well as independent investigations of officer-involved deaths.
The Obama administration is sending two Justice Department officials to Baltimore. The department is reviewing the way Baltimore police handled the Gray case. Newly confirmed U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch briefed members of the state's congressional delegation in a phone call late Tuesday.
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Several politicians vying to succeed Obama in the White House also have begun weighing in on the situation in Baltimore. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted late Monday that Gray's death "is a tragedy that demands answers."
Martin O'Malley, a former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore who might challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination, cut short an overseas tour to return to the city. An aide said O'Malley spoke at a community meeting in West Baltimore andwould be "participating in the healing process with the people of Baltimore."
Another potential candidate with a history in Baltimore, Republican Ben Carson, urged "parents, grandparents and guardians to please take control of your children." Carson lives in Florida, but had a long and celebrated career as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.