Speaking to police officers in Suffolk County, NY, Friday about the scourge of MS-13, President Donald Trump said, “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, 'Please don’t be too nice.'"
Some officers in attendance laughed and cheered at the remark. But the comments have sparked a firestorm of comments from anti-police groups and civil libertarians, and chiefs nationwide have stressed that they do not agree with the remarks and do not condone “rough” treatment of suspects.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press, "I believe he was making a joke at the time."
Before Sanders' comments White House officials had declined to say if they had a response to multiple police departments criticizing Trump's law-and-order speech in New York, CNN reports.
“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 told the Washington Post.
“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.”
The Suffolk County Police Department, in New York, which had officers at the speech, responded within two hours.
“As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners,” it said on Twitter. The department “has strict rules & procedures relating to the handling of prisoners,” it said in another post. “Violations of those rules are treated extremely seriously,” the New York Times reports.
In a statement on Saturday, the New York police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, said the department’s training and policies about the use of force “only allow for measures that are reasonable and necessary under any circumstances, including the arrest and transportation of prisoners.”
“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,” he added.
Immediately after the speech, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued a statement that read:
Managing use of force is one of the most difficult challenges faced by law enforcement agencies. The ability of law enforcement officers to enforce the law, protect the public, and guard their own safety, the safety of innocent bystanders, and even those suspected or apprehended for criminal activity is very challenging. For these reasons, law enforcement agencies develop policies and procedures, as well as conduct extensive training, to ensure that any use of force is carefully applied and objectively reasonable considering the situation confronted by the officers.
Law enforcement officers are trained to treat all individuals, whether they are a complainant, suspect, or defendant, with dignity and respect. This is the bedrock principle behind the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy.
The National Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump during the election, issued a statement Monday that defended the president.
Chuck Canterbury, the association’s president, said taken as a whole, Trump’s speech showed the president very strongly supports rank-and-file police officers.
“There isn’t another politician out there today who empathizes more with our members than the president does — and nobody appreciates him more than the 332,000 members of the Fraternal Order of Police!” he said.
Trump also vowed in his speech to support law enforcement officers by ensuring his administration makes surplus military equipment available to police, the Washington Times reports.
“You are saving American lives every day and, believe me, we have your backs,” Trump said. “We have your backs 100 percent. Not like the old days. Not like the old days.”