WASHINGTON — President Obama, grappling with how to respond to the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and a wave of anger at law enforcement officials across the country, said Monday that he would tighten standards on the provision of military-style equipment to local police departments and provide funds for police officers to wear cameras.

But Mr. Obama stopped short of curtailing the transfer of military-grade gear to local law enforcement authorities and continued to put off a visit to Ferguson. Instead, the White House tried to channel the rage over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager there into a national debate about how to restore trust between the police and the public.

Administration officials said they concluded after a review that the vast majority of transfers of military-style equipment strengthened local policing, even after the police in Ferguson were criticized for heavy-handed use of such gear to quell protests last summer. But the officials said local authorities needed common standards in the types of hardware they requested and better training in how to use it. 

All told, the changes were modest, and Mr. Obama himself was circumspect in remarks about Ferguson after an orchestrated day of meetings at the White House with civil rights and religious leaders, big-city mayors, and law enforcement officials. The president seemed eager to keep the focus not on what happened in Ferguson but on its broader lessons for the country.

“Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis,” the president told reporters, describing a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” He called for a “sustained conversation in which, in each region of the country, people are talking about this honestly.”

The Ferguson case, with its fiercely disputed facts, has posed a particular dilemma for Mr. Obama, forcing him to balance his sympathy for the anger it has aroused among African-Americans with his commitment to the rule of law. He has not spoken about it in the raw, personal tones he brought to other racially charged cases, like the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 or even the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009 for disorderly conduct after the police thought he was breaking and entering his own home.

The limited nature of the White House response also reflects the reality that transferring military-style surplus gear to police departments remains politically popular in Congress and in the municipalities. While Congress held hearings after the initial unrest in Ferguson in August, it has not acted to curb its grants and transfers of such equipment.

Curtailing those transfers, experts said, would be a reversal of years of policy and would have scant support in Congress. The militarization of police has been part of a broader counterterrorism strategy of fortifying American cities, which took root after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has become a reliable source of federal largess for local authorities.

With no legislation likely, Mr. Obama has instead focused on standardizing regulations across the multiple federal agencies — primarily the Department of Homeland Security — that supply this equipment to cities and towns. He would also seek to improve training and require “after-action” reports for incidents involving federal equipment.

The report, the White House said, found “a lack of consistency in how federal programs are structured, implemented and audited.” Criticism of the practices swelled after the police in full body armor, on heavily armed vehicles, confronted protesters in Ferguson with assault rifles.

But administration officials noted that only 4 percent of the surplus equipment transferred by the Pentagon is actually combat-ready hardware. Most of it is office equipment.

To bolster local policing, the government also announced a $263 million program that will provide up to 50,000 body cameras for police. The video footage from these cameras could clarify disputed incidents like the deadly encounter between the teenager in Ferguson, Michael Brown, and the police officer, Darren Wilson.

The president also announced on Monday the formation of a task force to improve local policing. Leading the panel will be Charles H. Ramsey, the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, and Laurie Robinson of George Mason University, a leading criminal law scholar.

The moves came on a busy day of events for the administration meant to telegraph a robust White House response to the unrest in Ferguson. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. traveled to Atlanta on Monday evening to meet with law enforcement officials and community leaders, the first stop on what officials said would be a nationwide tour.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historic home parish of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Holder reiterated plans for the Justice Department to announce new guidance in coming days to help eliminate racial profiling in law enforcement.

“This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing,” he said. The revisions to the guidelines are widely anticipated; Mr. Holder has promised to release them before stepping down.

At one point, Mr. Holder was interrupted by protesters who stood up, some with fists raised. “We have nothing to lose but our chains!” they said. He seemed unfazed, saying it was through their passion that “change ultimately will come.”

Among those in the White House meetings on Monday were Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia; the president of the National Urban League, Marc Morial; the Rev. Al Sharpton; and two civil rights leaders from Ferguson, Rasheen Aldridge and Brittany Packnett.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that the promises of change that follow incidents like Ferguson are often forgotten when the immediate emotion dies down. But he insisted that his task force would report back in 90 days with recommendations to improve policing, guaranteeing, he said, that Ferguson would leave a legacy of better law enforcement.

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices

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