Police should treat the people they arrest violently, President Donald Trump said Friday afternoon, encouraging cops to get “rough” when they toss people into a police vehicle.
Trump offered the praise for flagrant retributive violence by uniformed law enforcers during a wide-ranging speech to cops in Brentwood, New York. Officers present laughed and applauded in response.
“When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddywagon, you just see ’em thrown in rough. I said please don’t be too nice,” the president said, to a murmur of chuckles.
“Like when you guys put somebody into the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put your hand, like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody, don’t hit their head,” he went on. “I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
The police laughter grew louder, giving way to applause and cheers.
The presumption that anyone who finds themselves in handcuffs is guilty enough to deserve violence from officers is not terribly surprising from a man who insists the exonerated Central Park Five are guilty years after he said the innocent men should get the death penalty. The idea that American cops should play judge, jury, and punisher in the criminal justice system, too, is consistent with Trump’s brash persona.
But it’s one thing for some guy in a bar to say stuff like this, and very much another for the head of the American government to tell cops directly to abuse their authority. After a year of campaign promises to restore law and order, the comments lay bare Trump’s actual desire: replace the checks and balances of the legal system with a Judge Dredd-style license to brutalize.
The particular example Trump chose — roughing up suspected criminals in police vehicles — prods directly at one of the most notorious recent examples of deadly police violence.
When civic unrest turned violent in Baltimore two years ago, it was exactly such behavior that sparked the discord. Freddie Gray had died of a broken neck in the back of a police van. The officers responsible for his arrest and transportation were charged in his death, but the charges fell apart in court.
In the years since Gray’s death and the ensuing outburst of public anger, federal investigators have documented a deep-seeded pattern of contempt for civil rights in the Baltimore Police Department. Officers routinely harass, molest, and assault people as a way of exerting control over the city. Department brass have acknowledged these flaws and participated in forming a “consent decree” agreement to reform training and enforcement practices. Yet that hard-won compromise, welcomed by community and police leaders alike, could easily fall apart if Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions decide to simply walk away from the deal.
Investigators and experts on police violence have documented a pattern of intentional hands-off violence of this sort. Cops have a nickname for the practice of leaving a handcuffed suspect without a seatbelt and then driving erratically so that their arrestee is slammed around the back of the vehicle. “Rough rides,” as they are known in the law enforcement business, are by definition a violation of the constitutional right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by the state.
To Trump and his chuckling audience on Friday, the 8th Amendment is more of a suggestion.