It’s fitting that just before President Trump’s now-infamous talk to a gathering of Long Island police officers, he gave an also now-infamous talk to a large gathering of adolescent boys. When asked about the appropriateness of Trump’s bizarre speech at the National Scout Jamboree — during which the president settled grudges, made threats and boasted about attending a yacht party with “the hottest people in New York” — White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued that the speech couldn’t have been inappropriate because all the Boy Scouts seemed to be cheering. As if teen boys only cheer at appropriate things.
But it makes sense that Trump would find such an enthusiastic audience at the jamboree. Teen brains are both raging with hormones and still developing the tools vitally important for negotiating the adult world, such as impulse control, risk assessment and being able to ponder what might happen more than 20 minutes into the future. Teens are more likely than adults to act first to preserve ego, without thinking through the repercussions of those actions. This is why teens tend to lash out emotionally, say and do dumb things on the Internet and are generally more prone to make bad decisions, from sex to driving to drug use.
Trump also has problems with impulse control. He, too, writes dumb things on the Internet and often says (and tweets things) he later regrets (or at least ought to). Like a teenage boy, Trump is obsessed with who his friends are and who they aren’t. He’s obsessed with image. Like a teen, Trump is narcissistic and can’t help but let his ego get in the way of his goals. If it weren’t for that ego, his travel ban probably would have been implemented months ago. Finally, Trump certainly has a teen boy’s attitude toward women — there’s his obsession with the “hot wife” as a status symbol, his creepy comments about young girls, his boasts about sleeping with the significant others of his critics, and of course, the notorious “grab them by the p–––y” remark.
Ironically, it tends to be the political right, not the left, that more likely touts the correlation between impulse control and success in life. Yet it’s the political right who elected perhaps the most undisciplined president we’ve ever seen. (Bill Clinton obviously had some impulse control problems, and they were certainly destructive. But they were limited to sex. Trump’s seem to dominate his personality.) For most of Trump’s career, his reptilian instincts haven’t slowed him down. That’s often true of powerful people who can shelter themselves from the consequences of their actions. Trump has always had the means to unburden himself from advisers, associates and business partners willing to advise him of the impropriety of his actions (a pattern we’ve seen six months into his administration). Despite his boasts, Trump’s most successful business acumen hasn’t been dealmaking, which requires winning the trust and confidence of others, but creating and promoting his brand. Given that it’s a brand specifically designed to appeal what the typical teenage boy views as success — attractive wives, fancy cars, gold-plated things — Trump’s teen brain has worked well for him. And when he has gotten himself into trouble, personally or financially, PR gurus and bankruptcy attorneys have been around to help clean up his mess.
Of course, Trump isn’t a teen boy. He’a 71-year-old man. He also happens to be president. When he was merely a citizen, his poor impulse control merely meant another bankruptcy, failed marriage or marred relationship. The people affected were limited to Trump and those who chose to associate with him.
But now he has a platform and a bully pulpit. And while his ego is definitely getting in the way of some of his policy agenda, he can still wreak a lot of damage. He can get a lot of people hurt.
This brings us back to Trump’s talk to cops last week. (Quick aside: Despite Trump’s demagoguery on crime, the deficiency in impulse control he shares with teen boys is, ironically, also why people in their teens and early 20s tend to commit more crimes than others.) Trump’s approach to crime is the same as his approach to just about everything else. He doesn’t have the patience or interest for nuance. He’s too restless and uninterested to think carefully about anything that doesn’t affect him personally. His crime policy is instinctual, simple and from-the-gut: There are people out there who threaten us. We fix this problem by finding big men to beat up those people.
Trump’s tacit endorsement of police brutality was cheered by some of the beat cops at the event, and by law enforcement advocates who tend to see policing through the eyes of individual cops. That is unfortunate, but not terribly surprising. Cops have been incessantly told that there’s a “war” against them — that there are perpetual targets on their backs. Your average beat cop in a high-crime area undoubtedly sees a lot of bad stuff. Combine that with the psychological isolation in policing today, and you can see how police culture might develop a certain hostility toward criminal suspects, a reliance on profiling and stereotypes, an “us against them” mentality and a macabre sense of humor.
But Trump’s comments were also denounced — explicitly or more indirectly — by nearly every association of police executives imaginable, as well as by police executives in several major cities, and by police executives in the county where he gave the talk. There’s a reason for that, too. Police executives may often disagree on the merits of one policy vs. another. But in the end, they are the ones who have to clean up the mess when individual cops lack impulse control — when they give in to hostility, bias and the temptation toward brutality. Chiefs and sheriffs are ultimately held responsible for the crime rate, which means they have the strongest interest in finding and implementing what works, not what feels right– or what satisfies our thirst for vengeance or retribution — but what actually works.
I would imagine — and hope — that most of them believe that roughing up suspects, routine brutality and contempt by cops for the people in the communities they serve are contrary to the values of a free and humane society. But more immediately pertinent to them is that they know that all of these things don’t prevent crime. They make crime worse. When you alienate the people you’re supposed to be protecting, they stop cooperating. Eventually, they become out-and-out hostile. When entire communities stop cooperating with the police — when they fear the cops more than the criminals — the crime rate can only go one direction. As I’ve pointed out here before, there’s a strong overlap between the cities that have seen increases in violent crime, the cities where there’s a long and documented history of police brutality, profiling and/or corruption.
You see this in Trump’s approach to immigration, too. Everything about Trump’s immigration policy comes straight from the brain stem. There’s little nuance or higher-level thinking. He speaks in anecdotes, not data — horrible anecdotes about murder, rape and “slicing and dicing.” Never mind that sanctuary cities are safer than other cities of the same size. Or that immigrants — including undocumented immigrants — commit fewer crimes than American citizens. Police officials in sanctuary cities say that forcing their officers to enforce federal immigration laws would be disastrous for public safety. Immigrants would stop reporting crimes and stop cooperating with police. There’s data to back them up. But these arguments are too complicated for Trump. In his view, undocumented immigrants are bad, and cops are good; therefore, cops should be helping catch undocumented immigrants.
Around the same time as Trump’s talk, these stories were in the news:
- In Mississippi, cops serving a warrant for domestic violence raided the wrong house, and instead shot and killed another man. While police claim that the man was pointing a gun at them and refused to drop it, an attorney for the family says he was shot in the back of the head. The man for whom the warrant was intended was later questioned and released. He apparently wasn’t so dangerous after all.
- The Daily Beast’s Harry Siegel wrote about a man whose wife called 911, thinking her husband was having a heart attack. The cops arrived, mistakenly concluded that the man was beating his wife, and threw him to the ground, breaking his back.
- In Minneapolis, a police officer responding to a call about an alleged assault shot and killed Justine Damond as she stood and talked to his partner near their car. The emerging story is that Damond or someone else “slapped” the car, startling the officer.
- Washington police officials announced that they were investigating reports of an officer (or multiple officers) wearing a T-shirt featuring the grim reaper and some possibly racist imagery, and touting “jump outs” on suspects.
- Video emerged of U.S. border officers telling a Mexican teen to drink a liquid they suspected to be an illicit drug. He did, and it killed him.
- Officials in Baltimore dismissed 34 criminal cases after video footage of what appears to be a Baltimore cop planting drugs.
- The New York Times noted a disturbing series of recent incidents in which police interactions with elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia have gone horribly wrong.
- And as has now been widely reported, in Suffolk County, N.Y., the same county in which Trump gave his talk, several cops recently pleaded guilty on charges related to brutality, included the former police chief.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of the bully pulpit. One Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent recently told the New Yorker that the culture within the agency has taken a dark and disturbing turn since Trump’s election.“We used to look at things through the totality of the circumstances when it came to a removal order — that’s out the window,” the agent said. “I don’t know that there’s that appreciation of the entire realm of what we’re doing. It’s not just the person we’re removing. It’s their entire family. People say, ‘Well, they put themselves in this position because they came illegally.’” That sounds an awfully lot like a police culture that has ditched nuance and context for a simpler, more gut-based approach. There’s good reason to fear a similar phenomenon in police agencies across the country, particularly those that lack strong leadership.
Previous presidents have erred by pretending police brutality doesn’t exist. Trump errs by endorsing it. At best, he reduced it to a wink and some back-slapping banter. Trump’s defenders say he isn’t a bully, that this was just a joke. He’s just letting the bullies know that he’s on their side. That might be even worse. At least bullies have the conviction to get their hands dirty.
A good police chief will go out of his or her way to shake cops out of acting on impulse. It’s difficult to instill in someone the idea that de-escalation is safer than brute force, that they should resist the laziness of racial profiling and policing by anecdote, and that they should see everyone in a high-crime area — even suspects — as citizens with rights, not as a potential threat to officer safety. They know that poor impulse control is what causes cops to, for example, shoot innocent black motorists when they reach for their driver’s licenses. They know that simplistic thinking like “brute force is always better” is why cops can’t contemplate why “dynamic entry” raids might cause even innocent homeowners to reach for something with which to defend themselves.
At least some police executives are trying. We’re seeing more interest in training in de-escalation and conflict resolution. We’re seeing an understanding of why it’s better for cops to see themselves as “guardians” than as “warriors.” We’re seeing more understanding that successful policing is a hell of a lot more complicated than intimidation, brute force and outgunning the “bad guys.” To have no less than the president of the United States then undermine all of that by reinforcing the worst instincts in policing in a nationally covered speech makes their jobs a lot more difficult. It also makes the rest of us less safe, from both criminals and wayward cops.