Somehow, after the nonstop news avalanche that was his presidential campaign and 6 months in the White House, Donald Trump continues to find ways to shock us. Though his statements Friday to police officers on Long Island are not surprising in their sentiment; they were perhaps so effectively jaw-dropping because they echo what some idealists likely consider an exaggeration about how police officers view their jobs. They were also complete counter to the general national trend toward recognizing poor police training, a system that covers for and, in some cases, encourages excessive force and racist policing, and the public dialogue about fixing the justice system in general.
His comments were not, however, counter to the ideals of his closest supporters, namely Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions.
Trump attended the event with New York law enforcement officers to discuss the MS-13, a gang that is active on Long Island. This event came as Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump has been bombasting publicly of late, visited El Salvador to meet with officials about the local branch of that same gang there. Sessions praised the country’s recent mass arrests of gang members.
MS-13 originated in Los Angeles but is active throughout the United States and has become a focus for the Trump Administration as a target which combines two of their pet projects: immigration and crime. “On February 9, 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued an Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking to dismantle and eradicate transnational gangs threatening the safety of communities,” according to The Boston Herald. “The investigation into this MS-13 clique is being handled by Salvadoran gang prosecutors who were trained and mentored by FBI and State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law advisors, Justice Department embedded Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training (OPDAT) prosecutors.”
In 2016, The Washington Post reported that El Salvador’s politicians and police were likely guilty of human rights violations for its aggressive measures to eradicate gang activity and lower the country’s high homicide rate.
This makes Trump’s statements on Long Island even less surprising, if not significantly more terrifying.
In his speech, Trump made innumerable references to how police should treat arrestees, particularly referencing ICE officers, encouraging more aggressive behavior that, while it is not the level of violence seen in El Salvador, is definitely not human or democratic. He also discussed providing more military equipment to police and ICE officers and grouped himself with the law enforcement officers in a victimizing ramble.
He called for officers to “not be too nice,” encouraging them in a presumably joking way not to protect arrestees heads when placing them into patrol cars, for example. The humor gets lost, however, when you look at the parallel activities of his Attorney General and the current state of policing in the United States.
Trump encouraged people to cheer if they saw arrestees being “thrown in the back of a paddy wagon,” reemphasizing the “throwing” part. One Twitter response to this read: “Freddie Gray was thrown in the back of a paddy wagon and killed by police. Trump essentially called for more of those killings today.” Gray died from a spinal injury after what officers called a “rough ride,” where he was improperly secured in the back of a van.
He stated that the Trump Administration would have police officers’ backs, “not like the old days,” implying that the Obama Administration had been anti-cop in calling for criminal justice oversight and reform.
As if that were not enough, Trump also stated that we are currently having the worst human trafficking situation in the history of the world, to which another Twitter response read: “Donald Trump woke up this morning in a house built by slaves.”
On Saturday, some police departments and representatives spoke out against Trump’s remarks as well as his audience’s apparent embrace of his violent, unlawful rhetoric.
The Gainesville Police Department, in Florida, Tweeted that Trump had made statements that “endorsed and condoned police brutality” and that their department “rejects these remarks and continues to serve with respect.”
The Suffolk County Police Department in New York Tweeted: “As a department we do not and will not tolerate the roughing up of prisoners.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police also released a statement which concluded: “Law enforcement officials are trained to treat all individuals, whether they be a complainant, suspect, or defendant, with dignity and respect. This is the bedrock principle behind the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy.”
The Brennan Center for Justice, part of New York University’s School of Law, analyzed Jeff Sessions’ history in regards to criminal justice, both as a prosecutor and elected official. He has been a strong supporter of maintaining long and harsh sentences for nonviolent criminals and has even supported moves to allow police officers to confiscate people’s property even if they have not been accused of a crime, which is contrary to the beliefs of even his fellow Republicans. As a prosecutor, 40% of his prosecutions were against nonviolent drug offenders, twice that of his counterpart in Alabama. This is not to mention his well-recorded history of prosecuting black activists and citizens as they both fought for their right to vote and attempted to carry out that right despite racially motivated local laws.
Senator Elizabeth Warren took the spotlight during Sessions’ confirmation hearing for reading a letter written by Corretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions, which contributed to him not being confirmed as a federal judge in 1986. Warren was silenced by Mitch McConnell and her fellow senators but went on to read the letter in a Facebook Live video and to become the Democrats’ highest fundraiser at that time.
Sessions and Trump are utilizing racist, nationalist strategies, hardly veiled at all, in their campaign against this gang and their efforts to perpetuate the policing practices that have perpetuated the abuse and murder of black people and other people of color by police and the reported influx of ICE raids and arrests. Despite overwhelming statistics showing that crime rates and immigration are down throughout the country, that policing tactics need a national overhaul, and that the antiquated policing strategies Sessions and Trump laud are not effective or humane, they continue to fear-monger and perpetuate their divisive, hateful and dangerous ideals.
Various rights organizations have reported an influx of hate crimes and hate-based harassment since Donald Trump’s inauguration. The victims of such crimes are supposed to rely on police officers to investigate such incidences and protect them; but, are they supposed to rely on officers like the ones who cheered Donald Trump on on Friday?