On Friday afternoon, President Trump was in Long Island, New York, touting his administration's efforts to curb organized violence in the United States to a gathering of police officers. But while speaking to the assembled officers, something incredibly unsettling happened: Trump encouraged police to be more "rough" with suspects, and he got a round of applause for it.
Trump's speech largely focused on his move to "eradicate" MS-13, a predominantly Central American gang that has become his frequent target in recent months. However, his remarks advocating for the police to be more aggressive caught more attention:
When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see 'em thrown in, rough. I said, please don't be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you're protecting their head. You know, the way you put the hand, 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?
It had a similar edge as many of Trump's darker comments during his presidential campaign last year, urging for protesters to be punched in the face, among other things. He even offered to pay any resulting legal bills if his supporters got in trouble for assaulting protesters, although when the situation actually arose, he didn't make good on it.
This time, however, it wasn't just throngs of his political supporters cheering his calls for violence, but an enormous crowd of police officers ― in full uniform, no less ― applauding a straightforward, blatant call for them to engage in brutality against suspects.
Trump's comment was met with a wave of laughter, then applause, and some whistling cheers from the crowd. He went on to claim, as HuffPost detailed, that current law is unfairly stacked against law enforcement officers, giving too many rights to criminals and suspects.
"For years and years, [laws have] been made to protect the criminal. Totally protect the criminal, not the officers," he told the police. "You do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are. These laws are stacked against you. We’re changing those laws."
Statistics do not support Trump's view of the system overwhelmingly favoring criminals and suspects. To the contrary, cases of police officers committing brutality and violence seldom result in indictment, let alone conviction.
While there's no good time for a sitting president to openly an enthusiastically endorse police brutality, as Jessica Lustig of the New York Times Magazine noted on Twitter after Trump's speech, the message has unique relevance to the department he was addressing. Back in 2012, the chief of the Suffolk County Police Department, James Burke, was convicted and imprisoned on brutality and cover-up charges, under incredibly lurid circumstances.
Trump's comments about roughing up suspects while en route to police departments are also evocative of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died from spinal injuries suffered after being arrested and put in the back of a police van without being safely secured. Gray suffered a nearly severed spinal cord, feel into a coma, and died a week later. While six officers involved were charged over the incident, none of them were convicted, and five of them ultimately counter-sued Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
This is far from the first time Trump has voiced support for draconian punishments of criminal suspects. In 1989, he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, and the executions of five black and Latino teenagers accused of committing a rape and assault in Central Park. The teens, who came to be known as the Central Park Five, were ultimately exonerated years later.