WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr said on Sunday that he did not believe racism was a systemic problem in policing, echoing other top administration officials’ defense of an important part of President Trump’s base as protests against police killings of unarmed black people continued across the nation.
“I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist,” Mr. Barr said in an interview with the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “I think we have to recognize that for most of our history, our institutions were explicitly racist.”
Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, made similar remarks on Sunday in an interview with “This Week” on ABC, saying that “systemic racism” was not an issue for law enforcement.
Their defense mirrored comments made last week by the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, and came as the protests over the killing of George Floyd last month and racial injustice in policing continued to gain momentum. Nearly a decade ago, the killings of unarmed black people — including Trayvon Martin, a teenager in Florida who was shot while walking home from the store — planted the seeds for the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests racial profiling, racial inequality in the nation’s prisons and policing issues, including excessive use of force.
Mr. Barr and Mr. Wolf spoke the day before the president was scheduled to meet with local, state and federal law enforcement officials at the White House.
Mr. Trump, who has declared himself “your president of law and order,” needs the continued support of police officers and sheriffs — especially now that he has weakened in the polls — and evangelical Christians, another crucial part of his base. A handful of top Republicans have also said that they will not support him in the upcoming election.
Both Mr. Barr and Mr. Wolf condemned the death of Mr. Floyd as a tragedy, and the attorney general said he understood why black people in the United States distrusted law enforcement given “the history in this country.”
Mr. Barr reiterated comments he made during a news conference on Thursday, when he said that it was “undeniable that many African-Americans lack confidence in the American criminal justice system” and that “nothing less is acceptable” than equal protection under the law.
But he said that work done since the 1960s to reform racist institutions more broadly “is working and progress has been made.” In his view, he said, police brutality against black people was the work of a few bad apples.
To that end, Mr. Barr told CBS that he did not support reducing the amount of immunity officers have when someone dies in their custody. Such a change, he said, would “result certainly in police pulling back.”
“I frankly think that we have generally the vast, overwhelming majority of police are good people,” Mr. Barr said. “I think that there are instances of bad cops. And I think we have to be careful about automatically assuming that the actions of an individual necessarily mean that their organization is rotten.”
While Mr. Barr flatly denied there was systemic racism in policing, he compared law enforcement to the military, which he said “used to be an explicitly racist institution.”
“Now I think it’s in the vanguard of bringing the races together and providing equal opportunity,” Mr. Barr said. “I think law enforcement has been going through the same process.”
During the Trump administration, the Justice Department has pulled back on the tools it had used in the past to combat police abuses, including consent decrees that impose a rehabilitation program onto police forces. It has also allowed police departments to receive grant money without filling out as much paperwork to show the results of their policing work.
This has made some activists and black community leaders wary of the department’s ability and willingness to curb police abuses. It has also led them to worry about how it will handle the federal civil rights investigation into the officer who knelt for nearly nine minutes on the neck of Mr. Floyd, an unarmed motorist, before he died on May 25.
Since Mr. Floyd’s death, the F.B.I. criminal division has opened 10 investigations into whether law enforcement personnel violated the rights of civilians under color of law, meaning while acting in their capacity as officers of the law, according to an official familiar with the cases who was not authorized to publicly discuss them.
Democrats in Congress have staked out a markedly different position. On Monday, they are expected to announce expansive legislation that makes it easier to prosecute police misconduct. The proposal would also make it easier to recover damages from officers who are found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of civilians and to pressure the Justice Department to address systemic racism in law enforcement.
Nicholas Fandos, Adam Goldman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.