American presidents have frequently endorsed and enacted policies that undermine basic constitutional rights. Abraham Lincoln did it. So did Franklin Roosevelt. In the name of prosecuting the war on terrorism Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama undermined privacy and due process rights, weakening some of the most important protections in the Bill of Rights. Bush tortured people in our name. Obama broadened sweeping warrantless surveillance, the extent of which probably still is unclear.
But no president ever encouraged and endorsed the violation of constitutional rights so bluntly and so cravenly as President Trump did Friday afternoon in a jaw-dropping speech to law enforcement officers in Long Island, New York. It was an invitation to lawlessness to the very people who are supposed to help us ensure we all obey the law. Here is what Trump said:
And when you see these towns and 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. (Laughter.) Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? (Here, Trump mimicked the way cops put their hands on suspects heads to protect them) Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay? (Laughter and applause.)
Many of the cops in attendance cheered at the suggestion America needs more police brutality; that more excessive force applied to more criminal suspects is the answer to rising crime in some places. Among those applauding, laughing, and cheering Trump’s call for an end to the presumption of innocence, for an end to constitutional policing, were officers with the Suffolk County Police Department, which already is under federal oversight for discrimination, and whose former police chief was sentenced last November to 46 months in federal prison for severely beating a suspect and then trying to cover it up.
But Trump didn’t stop there in undermining the Bill of Rights. Feeding off the crowd, the president then mischaracterized police liability and immunity laws, implicitly mocking the predictably common results of the most notorious excessive force cases of our time. Police enjoy vast legal protection for even the most egregious misconduct, even in circumstances where reasonable jurors easily could hold them liable. Just ask the families of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Alton Sterling, to name just a few. In any event, Trump told the crowd:
And I have to tell you, you know, the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years they’ve been made to protect the criminal. Totally made to protect the criminal, not the officers. If you do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are. These laws are stacked against you. We’re changing those laws.
A president who encourages police brutality. A president who sees criminal suspects as “thugs.” A president who wants to encourage more racial discrimination in policing. A president who sees “bad cops” as victims and who wants to further insulate them from accountability and responsibility. A president who does not understand or will not accept the premise of the presumption of innocence. These concepts are not just the rantings of an addled mind. They also are demonstrably bad ideas.
Which is why it was so comforting late Friday, and through the weekend, to see one police department after another across the country, one police organization after another, disassociate itself from Trump’s warped view. From Los Angeles to New York, New Orleans to Minnesota, Seattle to Miami, police officials of all stripes spoke up for constitutional policing and against Trump’s call to arms. I did not see a single major police organization defend Trump’s comments (some, however, like Law Officer Magazine, dubiously try to portray it all as some sort of joke.)
And from the Justice Department, the folks who represent a critical link between the federal government and local law enforcement? Not a peep in public support for the “good policing practices” that local police officials were so quick to identify in the wake of Trump’s rhetoric. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the prince of federalism, was silent over the weekend even after he returned from an overseas trip to promote the government’s fight against the MS-13 gang. Would the attorney general dare issue a public rebuke to Trump with the president so evidently eager to replace him? If not, how about a comment from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? Does he believe police officers should intentionally harm suspects?
It is not news that Trump would be out of step with policing best practices. It is not news, either, that the man who wanted to execute the Central Park Five (whose sentences were later vacated) would have a distorted view of the Bill of Rights. While all are focusing on the substance of what Trump said, the real news here may lie in the audience to whom his comments were directed. The president is trying to expand the wedge between police officials and rank-and-file officers. Between the men and women shaping policing and the men and women who have to walk a beat or patrol dangerous neighborhoods.
We see that wedge, that division, played out in countless stories concerning police transparency and accountability. What Trump did last week was tell police unions he is with them and not with the police managers with whom they often clash. That he stands with those who oppose police reforms and not with those seeking to implement them.
The tragedy of these intemperate remarks and the message they send isn’t just that the nation’s chief executive is actively undermining the work of the nation’s police chiefs. The tragedy is that those cheering Trump the loudest Friday are those who are most likely to be hurt by the community distrust police misconduct fuels.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.