Since announcing his campaign, Donald Trump has claimed that he alone could restore law and order to a lawless, chaotic and violent country. In return for his commitment to this 1980’s era law and order rhetoric, he earned the endorsements of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the National Border Patrol Council, the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, and numerous local police organizations. According to Fraternal Order of Police President Check Canterbury, “There isn’t another politician out there today who empathizes more with our members than the president does—and nobody appreciates him more than the 332,000 members of the Fraternal Order of Police!”
It is this great appreciation that makes President Trump’s comments last week about police roughing up suspects—and the reaction of the crowd made up largely of law enforcement officers—so disturbing. According to the White House transcript, the president said to a group of Suffolk County, New York police officers:
[W]hen 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? 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.)
The assembled police officers responded with laughter and applause.
Maybe only a humorless killjoy would fail to find jokes about police violence funny in the midst of national outrage at the continued unaccountable killing of people of color. Maybe it does not matter that the police officers that laughed and applauded President Trump’s standup routine are members of a police department that is under Department of Justice oversight for discriminatory policing against members of the Latino community. Maybe when FOP President Canterbury says, “the President’s off the cuff comments on policing are sometimes taken all too literally by the media and professional police critics,” and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says, “He was just making a comment, making a joke,” they are right to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt.
But that would require ignoring the rest of his ignominious speech.
All this violence is justified, in Trump’s imagination, because America’s towns are now “bloodstained killing fields” where gang members he calls animals kidnap, rape, rob and kill the innocent, “butcher little girls [and] stomp on their victims . . . beat them with clubs [and] slash them with machetes.” He likens the police to an army that is “liberating our American towns.” And Trump wants to make sure these police are equipped like an army. He lauded his reversal of an Obama executive order designed to limit the distribution of military equipment to police departments, the use of which has drawn broad criticism after its use against protestors of police violence in places like Ferguson, Missouri:
You know, when you wanted to take over and you used military equipment—and they were saying you couldn’t do it—you know what I said? That was my first day: You can do it. (Laughter.) In fact, that stuff is disappearing so fast we have none left. (Laughter.) You guys know—you really knew how to get that. But that's my honor. And I tell you what—it's being put to good use.
Even ignoring the fact that such equipment unnecessarily militarizes local police—potentially exacerbating a mindset that views community members as enemy combatants—this comment came just days after reports revealed gross mismanagement of the program that provides surplus military equipment to local police departments. It seems odd to brag about making military equipment more readily available so soon after an investigation found that the Department of Defense gave $1.2 million worth of military equipment to a fictitious police department the Government Accountability Office created as part of an investigation into the controversial program. We should instead be talking about creating more adequate controls to prevent such dangerous equipment from falling into the wrong hands.
Perhaps most disturbing is the president’s belief that there is a simple solution to crime and violence in America. He singled out for praise a Chicago police officer who said he could straighten out that city’s gun violence problems in “[a] couple of days,” because “[w]e know all the bad ones. We know them all.” The problem, in Trump’s telling, is that laws designed to protect our civil rights and liberties get in the way of stopping the “bad ones.” This conclusion is at odds with the experience of witnessing a jury acquit the police officer who killed Philando Castile without provocation, like so many juries have acquitted or failed to convict police officers. The law does not seem overly solicitous of victims of police violence when the Supreme Court unanimously holds that even when a police officer’s unconstitutional behavior creates the dangerous situation requiring lethal force, the police will not be held accountable. And yet, President Trump stood before the assembled police officers and declared, “the laws are stacked against us, but we’re ending that. (Applause.)”
We are told that police violence is mostly justified or about a few bad apples and does not reflect a larger systemic problem with policing in American. Leaders of law enforcement agencies across the country, including the Suffolk County Police Department and Trump's own Drug Enforcement Agency chief, decried Trump's comments, and we should support them in efforts to adopt or promote existing policies to prevent police abuse. But it remains chilling that, when given license by the president to rough up criminal suspects characterized as animals and promised the end to laws that protect citizens’ civil rights and liberties, the response of this group of police officers was to laugh and applaud