The sustained criticism ballooned over the weekend as major department after major department weighed in against Trump’s remarks, a remarkable expression of disapproval for a president who has repeatedly proclaimed himself to be a champion of law enforcement.
Even as the White House has argued that Trump was not being serious, police officials publicly and privately expressed dismay about his comments, saying that his remarks were dangerous, given the current climate of distrust between communities and the officers patrolling them.
“There are some things that don’t have much humor, particularly in the environment we have today,” said Darrel Stephens, a former Charlotte police chief and now executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Even if it’s an attempt at humor, it sends the wrong message.”
Since Trump’s speech, law enforcement leaders have been discussing the remarks and have “universally” expressed “disbelief and disappointment” at the comments, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said.
“Words matter,” Acevedo said Monday. “Perception matters. . . . It doesn’t matter if he was joking. The president sets the tone, and when you joke about mistreatment of prisoners, that’s not a laughing matter.”
Trump’s comments came during a speech about gang violence on Long Island. After discussing “thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon,” Trump said he encouraged police not to treat suspects too nicely.
“Like 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, physically demonstrating the 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. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
Officers gathered for his speech at the Suffolk County Community College laughed and applauded, including a group of uniformed officers standing behind him.
Within hours, the Suffolk County Police Department released a statement disavowing Trump’s comments and saying it does “not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.” The International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement after the speech that did not mention Trump by name but emphasized the importance of officers treating “all individuals, whether they are a complainant, suspect, or defendant, with dignity and respect.”
In the hours and days that followed, police officials from California to Florida and from Texas to Maryland pushed back against Trump’s comments. J. Thomas Manger, the Montgomery County police chief and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, released a statement saying “our job got tougher” because of Trump’s remarks.
Police officers can face charges for using excessive force, and the Justice Department says its investigations of potentially unconstitutional law enforcement behavior most frequently involve allegations of excessive force. The former Suffolk County police chief was sentenced last year to 46 months in prison after pleading guilty to a federal civil rights violation and conspiring to obstruct justice; authorities said he beat a man who was handcuffed and in police custody.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not respond Monday to a request for comment about the criticism of Trump’s remarks. Asked about the criticism at a briefing for reporters Monday, Sanders said she believes Trump was joking. Trump’s supporters have argued that his comments were intended as humor, echoing a refrain from the presidential campaign that his backers and advisers alike took some of his remarks seriously but not literally.
He continued that “the President knows, just as every cop out there knows, that our society does not, and should not, tolerate the mistreatment or prejudgment of any individual at any point in the criminal justice process.” Canterbury declined further comment Monday.
Civil rights groups and advocates railed against Trump’s comments. Vanita Gupta, who ran the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration and now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the president “actively encouraged police violence.” Amnesty International said Trump’s speech would “only escalate tensions between police and communities.”
But the blowback to his remarks was also notable for how many prominent policing leaders weighed in against Trump, with some of the most high-profile voices in American policing issuing critical statements.
“This is the president of the United States,” Charles H. Ramsey, a former police chief in the District and Philadelphia, told CNN on Monday. “He’s commander in chief, not a stand-up comic.”
New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill released a statement saying that suggesting “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.” The Chicago police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, said in a statement that it went against his department’s values not to treat people “with dignity and respect.”
Richard Ross, commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, posted in a message on Twitter that his agency “does not condone the mistreatment of prisoners.” Charlie Beck, the Los Angeles police chief, tweeted that if an officer breaks the law “it serves only to undermine the hard work and sacrifice they make to keep this city safe.”
Police departments disavowed the remarks in an effort to reassure the public at a time when many agencies are seeking to repair relationships with the communities they police, experts said, amid intense scrutiny in recent years of officers for fatal shootings and other uses of force.
“Given where the country has been the last couple of years, many of us felt an obligation to say this is not what we believe,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “This message runs directly contrary to the thinking of American policing, which is even people who are arrested deserve to be treated fairly.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who like Trump has been vocal in his support for police but has become a target of the president’s anger recently, has remained silent on the issue. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Some law enforcement officers who were critical of Trump’s comments said they still value his repeated public statements of support for police.
“I absolutely appreciate that the guy in the White House appreciates what we do and has been vocal about that,” said Officer Ben Tobias, spokesman for the Gainesville, Fla., Police Department. “The flip side is, we’re talking about a culture where the public distrusts the police. To make light of that or do anything other than further the agenda of police having meaningful relationships with their community is unacceptable.”
Tobias had posted a statement on Twitter, Trump’s preferred medium, not long after the president spoke Friday, criticizing both the comments and the response from those who clapped.
“I’m a cop,” Tobias wrote. “I do not agree with or condone @POTUS remarks today on police brutality. Those that applauded and cheered should be ashamed.”
His tweet quickly went viral, garnering more than 100,000 retweets and three times as many likes by Monday.
In an interview, Tobias said he was directing his tweet at people in Gainesville, which is home to the University of Florida. After consulting with the police chief, Tobias followed up with a message tweeted from the Gainesville Police Department’s account, which garnered about half as many retweets and likes as Tobias’s personal message.
Tobias said his personal tweet had drawn a “mixed reaction,” as he expected, with a combination of people praising his message and others arguing that he did not understand the joke. He said the toughest responses have actually come from people praising him for speaking out.
“The comment that I get the most, and it’s the one that hurts me the most, is, ‘Thank you for reminding me that not all police are bad,’ ” he said. “When you hear that, it really puts it into perspective.”