President Donald Trump's apparent suggestion that police officers be "rough" with suspects in custody is facing sharp criticism from law enforcement agencies across the country, with police chiefs from California to Florida and New York condemning the president's remarks as an irresponsible encouragement of excessive force.
The condemnations began soon after Trump's speech to law enforcement officers in Brentwood, New York, Friday, aimed at bolstering local police efforts to combat a spike in violence attributed to the Marasalvatrucha, or MS-13, gang.
"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,'" the president told the officers assembled at Suffolk County Community College.
"Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head - you know, the way you put their hand over - like, 'Don't hit their head' and they've just killed somebody. 'Don't hit their head,'" he added. "I said, 'You can take the hand away, OK?'"
The comment received cheers and applause from several of the uniformed officers. Others, however, seemed to pause awkwardly for a second after hearing Trump's remarks, according to a BuzzFeed News reporter who attended the event.
Within a few hours, the Suffolk County Police Department was already distancing itself from Trump's remarks, saying in a statement that the agency would "not tolerate roughing up prisoners."
Other police departments were similarly quick to rebuke the quip, warning that the apparent urging of the use of force could erode already fragile relationships between law enforcement and the public and set back efforts to address problems of police brutality.
"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," New York Police Department Commissioner James P. O'Neill said in a statement.
In Los Angeles, Police Chief Charlie Beck didn't refer directly to the president, but noted in a tweet Saturday that when "an officer acts outside the law, it serves only to undermine the hard work and sacrifice they make to keep this city safe."
Trump's comments generated a response from the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as well, who in a department-wide memo sent out Saturday addressed the president's comment with the rank-and-file, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"The president, in remarks delivered yesterday in New York, condoned police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement," the memo from acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg read, according to the paper. "I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That's what law enforcement officers do. What's what you do. We fix stuff. At least we try."
Similarly, other police departments and chiefs across the country spoke out publicly to address the comments from the commander in chief, both to their officers and the public.
In Gainesville, Florida, the police department issued a stern condemnation of the comments, tweeting that the president had "endorsed and condoned police brutality."
A Gainesville Police Department spokesman also called out those Suffolk County officers who cheered and applauded the president's remarks.
In Seattle, Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole broadly condemned the politicization of policing practices.
"Seattle's police officers have embraced reform and have worked incredibly hard to build community trust," O'Toole said in a statement. "We do not intend to go backwards. It is truly unfortunate that in today's toxic environment, politicians at both ends of the spectrum have sought to inflame passions by politicizing what we do."
In California, Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said she would "turn her back on these statements and the man making them."
And on Saturday, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said via Twitter that his department "does not condone the mistreatment of prisoners."
New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison addressed Trump's comments head on in a statement on Saturday. "Improving public safety and reducing crime requires restoring trust with the community," he said in the statement. "The President's comments stand in stark contrast to our department's commitment to constitutional policing and community engagement."
The president's comments about how police handle people in custody also struck a particular chord in Baltimore, a city that was roiled by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody.
Bill Murphy, an attorney who has represented Gray's family, told the Baltimore Sun the president "should be condemned" for his statements.
"For a president of the United States to encourage the police with a wink and a nod to be violent to citizens...shows that the president is not in any way committed to justice for all people," Murphy said.
On Saturday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis addressed the president's comments in a tweet, saying officers should handle those in custody with "respect and human dignity."
The connection between the president's "paddy wagon" reference, and the way Freddie Gray died — of injuries sustained while in the back of a police van — also prompted California Congresswoman Maxine Waters to address Trump's remarks.
And Eric Kowalczyk, a former spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department who served at the time of Gray's death, called Trump's comments "disgusting."
Still, not all law enforcement groups have condemned Trump's comments.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest union of police officers in the country which endorsed Trump during the presidential campaign, waived off criticism of the president, dismissing his remarks as banter.
"The President's off the cuff comments on policing are sometimes taken all too literally by the media and professional police critics," the union's president, Chuck Canterburry, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "The President knows, just as every cop out there knows, that our society does not, and should not, tolerate the mistreatment or prejudgment of an individual at any point in the criminal justice process."
Trump, Canterburry added, empathizes more with police officers than any other politician at the moment.
Blue Lives Matter, an organization that supports and advocates for police officers, similarly dismissed Trump's remarks as banter. "Do these people actually realize that this was a joke and not a policy change? It seems not," the group wrote on its website.
Trump didn't suggest that officers purposefully slam suspect's heads against patrol cars, the group added, only that "officers shouldn't protect them (prisoners) from themselves."
Other police chiefs in the country noted Trump's joke. Houston Police Chief Art Acevdeo, however, called it an "inappropriate attempt at gallows humor."
Acevedo's Texan counterpart in the Southside Place Police Department said that regardless of Trump's statement or position, police officers would continue to "act professionally."
The International Association of Chief's of Police, however, warned against making light of the use of force by law enforcement, "one of the most difficult challenges faced by law enforcement agencies." In a statement Friday, the organization did not mention Trump by name, but addressed the addressed policy policies regarding the treatment of suspects in custody.
"Law enforcement officers are trained to treat all individuals, whether they are a complainant, suspect, or defendant, with dignity and respect," the statement read. "This is the bedrock principle behind the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy."
Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Salvador Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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