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Hillary Rodham Clinton dove into a roiling national debate about race, policing, and justice Thursday, saying the United States must wrestle with some “hard truths” and positioning herself as a proponent of criminal justice reform after two high-profile deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.

“I know that a lot of hearts are breaking, and we are asking ourselves, ‘Aren’t these our sons? Aren’t these our brothers?’ ” the possible 2016 White House contender said.

In a speech at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center that sounded decidedly presidential in its broad sweep and careful call to action, Clinton said, “Each of us has to grapple with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”

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The remarks by the former secretary of state and US senator were her first public statement about grand jury decisions on the racially charged deaths. They came a day after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner and a week after a St. Louis County grand jury brought no criminal charges against a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in the death of Michael Brown.

Clinton, speaking to a crowd pegged at 10,000, said despite decades of advances for people of color, African-Americans are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms.

She said a third of all African-American men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes. Clinton paused briefly before continuing: “What devastating consequences that has for their families and their communities, and all of us.”

Citing another statistic — that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but has nearly 25 percent of its total prison population — Clinton said the high rate of imprisonment is not because Americans are more violent or criminal, but because “we have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance.”

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The former first lady also said she hopes the deaths give the country the opportunity to come together “to find our balance again.” And she called for learning from the police departments all over the country that protect public safety without depending on excessive incarceration or unnecessary force.

“I know that a lot of hearts are breaking, and we are asking ourselves, ‘Aren’t these our sons? Aren’t these our brothers?’” Hillary Clinton said at the conference.
“I know that a lot of hearts are breaking, and we are asking ourselves, ‘Aren’t these our sons? Aren’t these our brothers?’” Hillary Clinton said at the conference.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Tapping into a discussion that grew as images of police in Ferguson with military-style equipment were broadcast on national television, Clinton called for funneling federal dollars to state and local law enforcement to boost best practices instead of purchasing “weapons of war that have no place on our streets.”

She also said she backed the Department of Justice investigations into what happened in Ferguson and Staten Island. The families and the country deserve a full accounting, she said, “as well as whatever substantive reforms are necessary to ensure equality, justice, and respect for every citizen.”

Clinton told the primarily female crowd that facing the tough issues in policing can’t be left to officials — from the president to police chiefs.

She said it’s important for Americans to imagine what it’s like to walk in their fellow citizens’ shoes, to try to see the world “through our neighbors’ eyes.”

Indeed, Clinton said, the deaths did not occur in a distant land to a foreign people.

“These are our streets, our children, our fellow Americans,” Clinton said, “and our grief.”

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The remarks, delivered with a slow, deliberate cadence at the Massachusetts Conference for Women as Clinton stood on a wide stage, came not long before she is expected to telegraph her political intentions.

Clinton has said she will probably decide in early 2015 whether to run for president a second time.

Should Clinton jump into the race, a key goal will be winning a large percentage of minority voters, as the potent issues at the intersection of race and policing are likely to remain a big part of the national conversation.

African-Americans and other communities of color have long been a core constituency of the Democratic Party, and were a vital part of the coalition that lifted President Obama to his White House victories in 2008 and 2012.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, also enjoyed significant support among African-American voters.

Obama also energized black voters in the 2008 Democratic primary against Clinton, and some felt Clinton allies were subtly injecting race into a heated contest.

Polling has found stark divides in how white and black Americans see the police and grand jury decision not to criminally charge the Ferguson officer who shot and killed Brown.

An ABC News/Washington Post survey released this week found 35 percent of white people disapprove of the Missouri jury decision, while a whopping 85 percent of black people disapprove.

A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found 70 percent of black people said African-Americans are treated less fairly than white people in dealings with police.

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As she considers a run for president, Clinton has traveled the country, campaigning for Democrats and making paid speeches.

It was not clear Thursday whether Clinton was compensated for her Boston appearance.

The media affairs director for the conference did not respond to e-mailed questions about whether and how much Clinton was paid. The Boston Globe was among the media sponsors of the conference.

In the rest of her wide-ranging remarks — and a subsequent question-and-answer session — Clinton spoke about women in the workplace and the lingering gender gap in pay. She told personal anecdotes from her life and mulled the immense challenges of being president.

Clinton laced her remarks with references to Massachusetts past and present — including mentions of Abigail Adams, the Lowell textile mills, and the late Thomas M. Menino.

She struck a few notes of economic populism, repeatedly praising and emphasizing the significance of a ballot initiative, passed by Massachusetts voters last month, that will entitle employees to earn and use up to 40 hours of sick time each year.

Clinton said we are “overcoming this false idea that everybody is on their own in society and the workplace.”

She touched on many other topics — including a mention of an hourlong meeting in the Oval Office on Wednesday with President Obama.

But Clinton never directly spoke about the question that looms every time she makes a public appearance: Will she run again?


Andy Rosen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.

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