On Friday, July 28th in Long Island, President Donald Trump addressed a crowd of distinguished police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers from across New York and New Jersey to thank them for their public service, and to set forth the White House agenda of cracking down on gangs and drug trafficking. A crucial part of this policy is to “dismantle, decimate, and eradicate” MS-13, one of the most violent drug cartels in the Americas.
His speech revolved around these concepts, but he also meandered into other topics, such as the violence in Chicago, the need to strengthen the border, and – a favorite of President Trump – bringing up his election victory: “I was beating [other candidates] by 40 points, can you believe it?”
However, it wouldn’t be a Trumpian speech if there weren’t controversy. During this speech, President Trump seemed to advocate for rough treatment of “thugs” during the arresting process. An excerpt: “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.’” He also implied that arresting officers should not use their hands to keep an arrestee from hitting his head on the roof of the police car: “‘I said, ‘you can take the hand away, okay?’” Many of the police officers in the crowd laughed and applauded during this portion of the speech, while others looked confused and shocked.
These comments coming from the President alarmed many members of law enforcement and the Judicial Branch across the United States, including police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors. Many police departments, including those of Boston, New York City, Gainesville, Portland, and Los Angeles have been quick to denounce the comments of the President, and make clear their respect for the Constitution and rights of the arrested.
Many members of groups outside of law enforcement, such as the ACLU, perceive President Trump’s speech as an endorsement of the tough-on-crime and “crime reduction” policies that are popular in the White House and the Justice Department. To support this contention, opponents highlight the work of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in reversing Obama-era policies. These include an easing of Civil Asset Forfeiture rules and reinstating a form of mandatory-minimums, which forces local prosecutors to pursue “the most serious” criminal charges against a suspect.
The Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Chuck Rosenberg, was quick to denounce the President’s comments in an intra-agency email, because he has “an obligation to speak out when something is wrong.” This rebuttal is especially stinging, as the DEA is and will be essential to the implementation of President Trump’s policies on drugs.
In the aftermath of President Trump’s comments, the White House has clarified that they were intended as a joke. The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement: “It wasn’t a directive, it was a joke.” She also used this opportunity to attack the media, which is characteristic of the Trump White House: “I think you guys are jumping and trying to make something out of nothing. He was simply making a comment, making a joke and it was nothing more than that.”
It is very likely that President Trump made these comments in jest, to lighten up his speech on the horrific consequences that drugs and the gangs that peddle them have on communities across the country. However, it is also troubling that a sitting President would joke about police abuse, especially when law enforcement and its tactics are currently facing public scrutiny.