By Jon Herskovitz
DALLAS (Reuters) - President Barack Obama visits Dallas on Tuesday to address a memorial service for five police officers killed at a protest against police violence, as he seeks to mend divisions inflamed by the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement in almost 15 years.
Former U.S. Army Reserve soldier Micah Johnson, 25, gunned down the officers in an ambush on Thursday after expressing anger over recent police killings of black people. Johnson then was killed by an explosive-laden robot sent in by police.
Johnson, who was black, opened fire during a march protesting the police shootings last week of two black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and outside St. Paul, Minnesota, the latest in a string of high-profile killings that have stirred a deepest debate on race and justice in America.
Johnson had said he wanted to "kill white people," particularly police, according to a police account of their unsuccessful negotiations with him.
Obama has to twin sympathy over the Dallas attack and for law enforcement officers around the country with support for black Americans who say police are too quick to use violence against them. After the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota at the hands of police last week, Obama said a significant number of Americans believe they are treated differently because of the color of their skin.
House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has been a fierce critic of Obama's policies, joined the president on Air Force One on the flight to Dallas, the White House said.
"At a time when our country is feeling so divided, I think it is important that the country's leaders are coming together across party lines despite significant political differences to emphasize our shared desire to unify the country," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama.
"Unfortunately, it's in moments of tragedy that this unity is revealed. This is a phenomenon the president will note in his remarks," Earnest added.
Obama, the first black U.S. president, has drawn criticism in the past from some in law enforcement for his tone in the aftermath of shootings by officers.
A HATE CRIME
Obama told senior law enforcement officials on Monday that he sees the Dallas shooting as a hate crime, or one motivated by bias, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, who was in the closed-door meeting at the White House.
Pasco said Obama drew a parallels between the actions of the Dallas shooter and Dylann Roof, the man prosecutors say espoused white supremacist beliefs before fatally shooting nine black people inside a church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015.
Johnson's death makes the question of charges against him moot, but Pasco said police unions are using the incident to lobby for a change to a federal statute that would allow the targeting of police, regardless of their race, to be charged as a hate crime.
White House officials did not dispute Pasco's account of the meeting.
Obama will deliver his address at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center during a private memorial service scheduled for 12:45 p.m. CT. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, is also scheduled to speak. Bush lives in Dallas.
Obama will also meet with the families of the slain policemen and others who were wounded, the White House said.
The slain officers were: Mike Smith, 55; Lorne Ahrens, 48; Michael Krol, 40; Brent Thomson, 43, and Patrick Zamarripa, 32.
Since the attack, members of the public have been leaving tributes including flowers and stuffed animals at a growing memorial outside Dallas police headquarters.
Police from nearby Arlington, Texas, will handle security for Obama's visit, so that the city's police force can grieve, Dallas Police Chief David Brown told reporters.
The Senate took up the issue after an attack on a gay nightclub last month in Orlando that killed 49 people and was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But senators failed to agree on any one approach. While Democrats in the House, along with some Republicans, have been clamoring for legislation, deep divisions among Republicans who control the chamber have prevented any legislation from even reaching the House floor.
The death toll in Dallas was the highest for law enforcement on a single day in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nine officers and two civilians were also wounded in the Dallas shootings.
The owner of the Baton Rouge convenience store outside of which Sterling, 37, was shot dead last week on Monday sued the city claiming that he was illegally detained after the incident.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Dallas; Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe, Richard Cowan, Jeff Mason and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham)