Police leaders across the country moved quickly to distance themselves from – or to outright condemn – President Donald Trump’s statements about “roughing up” people who’ve been arrested.
The swift public denunciations came as departments are under intense pressure to stamp out brutality and excessive force that can erode the relationship between officers and the people they police – and cost police chiefs their jobs.
Some police leaders worried that three sentences uttered by the president during a Long Island, New York, speech could upend nearly three decades of fence-mending since the 1991 Los Angeles Police Department beating of Rodney King ushered in an era of distrust of police.
“It’s the wrong message,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP while speaking of the trust-building work that departments have undertaken since King’s beating. “The last thing we need is a green light from the president of the United States for officers to use unnecessary force.”
Trump made the comments at a gathering of law enforcement officers at Suffolk County Community College in New York.
“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car.
“Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody – don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, OK?”
Trump’s remarks came after he spoke about local towns ravaged by gang violence.
Across the country, police department leaders said the president’s words didn’t reflect their views.
“The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously,” the department said in an emailed statement. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough(ing)’ up prisoners.”
Trump’s comments also drew a rebuke from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In a statement Friday, the group did not specifically mention Trump by name but appeared to respond to his speech by stressing the importance of treating all people, including suspects, with respect.
Mike Lopez, a Los Angeles police spokesman, told CNN that the department will “treat everyone with integrity and respect.”
“We work with partnerships in our community and continue to do that to keep our communities safe and secure from crime,” he told the news network. “With the help of our community we will continue to do this.”
Darrel Stephens, a former police chief who is now the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, told The Washington Post that the president’s words were a step back for police departments.
“Over the past two or three years, police departments have worked very, very hard to restore the loss of confidence and trust that people, particularly in the African-American community, have in the police, based on what happened in Ferguson and the other high profile shootings,” Stephens said. “Maybe not just what the president said, but the reaction of the police officers standing behind him, I think that complicates that.
“It sort of reinforces that there’s sort of a wink and a nod about these things, when that’s simply not the case.”
Statements from other police leaders followed.
In a statement to Patch.com, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said:
“Seattle’s police officers have embraced reform and have worked incredibly hard to build community trust. We do not intend to go backwards. It is truly unfortunate that in today’s toxic environment, politicians at both ends of the spectrum have sought to inflame passions by politicizing what we do. We remain committed to our principles and reject irresponsible statements that threaten to undermine our relationship with the community.”
A Boston Police Department statement obtained by CNN said the department’s “priority has been and continues to be building relationships and trust with the community we serve. As a police department we are committed to helping people, not harming them.”
In New York, Police Commissioner James O’Neill told the network that to “suggest that police officers apply any standard in the use of force other than what is reasonable and necessary is irresponsible, unprofessional and sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public.”
But the group Blue Lives Matter insisted that the president’s remarks were a joke, tweeting:
“Trump didn’t tell police to go out & brutalize people as the media would have you believe. It was a joke.”
Jim Bueermann, who heads the nonprofit Police Foundation, told CNN that the organization welcomes Trump’s support for law enforcement but “we cannot support any commentary – in sincerity or jest – that undermines the trust that our communities place in us to protect and serve.”
Police departments are under increased scrutiny for violent, often fatal interactions with suspects. So far this year, 574 people have been shot and killed by police, according to The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Last year, police shot and killed 963 people.
This year’s killings included the Minneapolis police shooting of Justine Damond, an Australian woman who called 911 to report a noise in the alley near her home and ended up shot dead by the responding officers.
The department’s missteps – neither officer had activated his body camera, so there’s no video evidence of the fatal encounter – resulted in international criticism and the ouster of Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau.
She was the fourth chief in recent years to lose her job after a controversial fatal shooting.