Speaking to a crowd of cheering police in New York Friday, President Trump encouraged officers to be rough with suspects they take into custody. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. Please don’t be too nice,” he said, endorsing the “rough ride” police tactic that allegedly killed Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in 2015.
Police chiefs quickly tried to distance themselves from the remark, saying the president’s recommendations are out of line with police protocol and contrary to officers’ “strict rules and procedures.” The national Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) president took another approach, claiming that Trump’s words were being taken “too literally.”
On Monday, Maryland FOP President Vince Canales, whose union includes the six officers who all escaped charges related to Gray’s death, told ThinkProgress he is “opposed to anything that goes against constitutional and ethical policing.” But he also said he has not heard of any rough rides — the tactic Trump described in which officers intentionally fail to secure a suspect in the back of a police van — occurring in his state.
Twenty-five-year-old Gray sustained a fatal spinal cord injury when Baltimore officers failed to buckle him in the back of a van. A medical examiner concluded that his death was “not an accident.”
But Canales said that Trump’s comments did not remind him of what happened to Gray. “I didn’t even put two and two together,” he said.
“I am still not aware that any [rough rides] have actually occurred,” he continued. “Even when you discuss the Freddie Gray incident, there was no information that was provided that that was actually what had occurred during the course of his case.”
Though he won’t acknowledge that the tactic has ever been used in Maryland, Canales said steps have been taken to prevent similar incidents in the future. Some jurisdictions have equipped police transport vans with cameras and in Baltimore, there have been updates to departmental policy and trainings for officers that conduct transports, he said.
“There’s been a lot of effort being put in by the police department in order to try to ensure that if this was occurring, that this is a practice that would stop,” he said.
Trump’s encouragement of violence in his speech shocked many, but just as alarming was the response from the Suffolk County officers in the audience, who broke out in laughter and cheers. Many noted that the Suffolk County Police Department has been under U.S. Department of Justice oversight since 2013 for racial profiling against Latinos and immigrants.
“Trump just told police officers that they can be more violent than they already are. And they cheered,” noted Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, a Baltimore native.
Trump just told police officers that they can be more violent than they already are. And they cheered. pic.twitter.com/KjYI3pxcVG
— deray mckesson (@deray) July 28, 2017
Canales refused to comment on the officers’ response to Trump’s comments. “I don’t have a comment on that,” he said while laughing. “I don’t have anything I can really add to that.”
Many police chiefs quickly denounced Trump’s comments, and reporters highlighted the condemnation of Trump’s call for violence. A New York Times headline after the speech declared: “Police Criticize Trump for Urging Officers Not to Be ‘Too Nice’ With Suspects.” But it’s hard to know how much weight those responses to Trump hold when rank-and-file officers — the people charged with bringing suspects into custody — responded very differently.
The New York Times report, for example, mainly quoted statements from police chiefs. The only rank-and-file response came from the Blue Lives Matter group, which like the national FOP president, called the comments a joke.
Canales recognized that Trump’s comments won’t help law enforcement repair its relationship with communities, which has become fraught in numerous jurisdictions in recent years amidst high-profile police killings and protests.
“At this point in time, when we’re trying to reestablish relationships with community, it makes it a little more divisive when we’re trying to bridge those gaps,” he said. “For us, it’s a matter of just ensuring that we don’t let language that may have been taken out-of-context or stated inappropriately and allow that to take effect.”
But he also said that he’s not worried that Trump’s rhetoric will have an effect on his rank-and-file officers — despite coming from an administration more friendly to law enforcement than other recent administrations.
“I think our officers have seen and heard enough throughout the country and we’ve experienced our own incidents here in Maryland,” he said. “We’ve realized that we have to work as a collaborative with our community stakeholders, and I don’t see this being something that’s going to wind up causing any of our officers to take a step backwards.”