Controversial statements by President Donald Trump in the past have often been treated by his supporters as hyperbole or not to be taken strictly or even seriously. However, a speech last Friday had some particularly chilling elements for anyone who believes in the rule of the law. Trump was speaking to law enforcement officers and urged them not to be “too nice” to suspected criminals and gang members. He further seemed to encourage intentional acts of harm and abuse in the handling of prisoners. The comments were irresponsible and should be be corrected by the White House. We recently discussed Trump’s praise for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has bragged about extrajudicial killings and encouraged police abuse. This is obviously not that extreme but it is still highly disturbing in a speech where the President has pledged that “We have your backs 100 percent” while encouraging them to be rough in handling of suspects. His comments have led to police organizations publicly rejecting the comments and assuring the public that they will not engage in such conduct.
In his speech in Brentwood, New York, Trump departed from his prepared comments to encourage police to be tougher in handling suspects:
“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,” he said, referring to the arrest of alleged gang members. “I said, please don’t be too nice.”
“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over,” [mimicking an officer protecting the head of a suspect] 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, OK?”
He went on to praise his acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tom Homan as “a tough guy” and his agents as “Rough guys. They’re rough.”
The President’s comments about letting suspects hit their heads on police cars was met by laughter from the officers in the audience.
The President’s comments could also, again, be introduced in court as evidence of a policy of more physical or abusive tactics. The White House has said that the President’s tweets and comments are official policy statements. In cases alleging harm to suspects, these words could be introduced to show an encouragement for tactics to rough up or harm suspects. Police are constitutionally and civilly required to protect suspects from harm in these circumstances. The suspect is under the control of the officer and not able to freely move. That is why officers protect their heads in putting them into cruisers. Otherwise, officers could regularly slam the heads of suspects into cars and claim that the suspects were careless.