A petty thief nabs a duffel bag full of sex toys and pornography from a parked SUV in Long Island. Authorities soon find the thief and take him to an interrogation room, where a gruff, middle-age officer threatens to kill him and beats the man, restrained by shackles, until junior officers intervene.
That’s the story, according to federal prosecutors who, in November 2016, secured a 46-month sentence for ex-Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke. After the perpetrator called the chief a pervert, Burke decided to punish the man with sustained physical blows. It should be noted that the porn-filled duffel bag belonged to the chief.
The topic of police brutality once again took center stage in Suffolk County recently, this time in the form of comments from the president of the United States. In a July 29 speech to law-enforcement officers and officials in Brentwood, N.Y., President Donald Trump said: “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. You just see ’em thrown in. Rough. I said ‘please don’t be too nice.’” He continued: “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head … the way you put their hand over — like, don’t hit their head and they just killed somebody, don’t hit their head. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’”
Multiple police departments, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Foundation and the New York police commissioner condemned Trump’s statement as irresponsible and not representative of proper police tactics. Even acting Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Chuck Rosenberg slammed the comments for condoning police misconduct, while Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated that he would “use the power of the office I’m entrusted with to hold any officer responsible who violates the law.”
The White House was quick to respond that Trump’s comments were intended as a joke. But let’s be crystal clear about what is being discussed here. The president, joking or not, encouraged law-enforcement officers to assault physically those under their dominion. Moreover, even if he didn’t actually intend to endorse police violence, laughing off the idea of abusing arrested citizens seems inexplicably tone deaf, given recent public tensions over police confrontations.
Those who are suspected to have committed a crime are treated as just that — suspects. Police officers are obligated, under the rule of law, to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the “bad guys.” It is the very foundation of our nation’s criminal justice system that all suspects are innocent under proven guilty with due process.
One reason for the swift response from law-enforcement representatives may be that the vast majority of police officers do not want to be associated with violating citizens’ rights. A recent survey found that 86 percent of officers believe high-profile controversies over police violence make their jobs harder. The same study found a majority of officers disagreed with the statement “some people can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way.”
It may be naive to assume these statistics and responses from police public relations departments are representative of all or most of law enforcement (especially given the remarkable support Trump received from police organizations and the laughter his comments elicited from the audience), but that isn’t the point. The fact is that police understand that, when communities mistrust the police, law enforcement’s job becomes more difficult and more dangerous. More important, the idea that it is “pro-police” to make a public statement that adds to bubbling tensions between communities and law enforcement is absurd.
The president appears to associate supporting law enforcement with giving police carte blanche to use force. The implication is that those who advocate more restrained, scrupulous conduct are somehow anti-police. The truth is, when poor and minority communities feel threatened by police, they are less likely to cooperate and report crimes. To give a specific example, 911 calls from black communities in Milwaukee dropped by 22,000 in the year after the 2004 beating of Frank Jude Jr. by off-duty Milwaukee officers.
Those who advocate community policing, increased training in de-escalation and holding officers with troubled histories accountable do not do so out of spite, but out of concern for the well-being of police officers. Building trust between communities and departments also can reduce violence toward officers. Indeed, 93 percent of officers polled reported an increased concern for their own safety after a string of prominent, fatal encounters between police and black citizens.
Trump’s rhetoric, in jest or otherwise, serves only to escalate tensions between communities and police departments. That isn’t “backing the blue.” The president’s comments harm citizens and police officers alike.