In a speech last week to a group of law enforcement officials in Suffolk County, New York, President Trump suggested that America was under threat “because police [aren’t] allowed to do their job.” He decried laws that he sees as “heavily stacked against [police]” and “made to protect the criminal.” In the face of this perceived imbalance, Trump pledged to “support our police like our police have never been supported before.” He derided the idea that police departments are “not allowed” to have “rough people” doing police work. And, most notably, he appeared to advocate police violence towards suspects and urged the officers in the audience, “please don’t be too nice.”
The response from law enforcement agencies and policing organizations was fast and notable. Many issued statements distancing themselves from Trump’s remarks, as the press dutifully reported.“Police leaders across the country moved quickly to distance themselves from — or to outright condemn — President Trump’s statements about ‘roughing up’ people who’ve been arrested,” reported the Washington Post. A similar article in the New York Times was entitled “Police Criticize Trump for Urging Officers Not to Be ‘Too Nice’ With Suspects.”
Many articles cited the Suffolk County, NY police department’s statements criticizing Trump, since it was the county where he delivered the speech and the department whose officers made up a portion of the audience. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners,” they tweeted. In another tweet they said that it had “[S]trict rules & procedures relating to the handling of prisoners” and “[v]iolations of those rules are treated extremely seriously.”
Except, of course, we know that’s not the case. The Suffolk County Police Department has a record of unusual brutality and widespread cover-up that permeated the organization and led to a 46 month federal prison sentence for the department’s recent chief. As the New York Times reported late last year, James Burke, “[t]he once popular and swaggering chief of the Suffolk County Police Department” was convicted in federal court for roughing up a prisoner in the department’s custody. In fact, Chief Burke brutally attacked a young man with a heroin dependence and a pattern of petty theft, after he’d been arrested for breaking into Burke’s SUV and stealing a duffel bag. Chief Burke punched the arrestee, “shook his head violently,” and threatened to give him a “fatal dose of heroin” while the man was handcuffed and “shackled to the floor of an interrogation room.” At one point, after the man talked back, Chief Burke “went out of control, screaming and cursing at [the arrestee] and assaulting him until a detective finally said, ‘Boss, that’s enough, that’s enough.’”
In stark contrast to their assertion last week that they hold members of the department accountable for police brutality, the Suffolk County Police Department responded to this vicious beating by covering it up. They were largely successful until the F.B.I. and United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York investigated the matter. Though the investigation is ongoing, by the end of last year, Long Island Press reported that court documents showed “numerous” members of the Suffolk County Police Department have been indicted and pled guilty to crimes stemming from the incident and its cover-up. Among other things, the indictments allege that officers threatened to kill the arrestee, threatened to rape his mother, and choked the arrestee until he lost consciousness. When the arrestee asked for an attorney, one detective told him, “This isn’t Law & Order; you’re not going to get an attorney.” In addition officers allegedly tampered with physical evidence and entered false information into police logs in order to cover up their actions.
As the breadth of the cover-up suggests, the incident is part of a broader culture of abusiveness and disdain for the law at the Suffolk County Police Department. As Reuters reported, just one day prior to Trump’s speech, a Suffolk County officer was charged with forcing a female arrestee to perform oral sex on him in a police station earlier this year. And, as Mother Jonesreported, the department has been under federal oversight since 2013, following an investigation into allegations of discrimination against Latinos and immigrants.
Indeed, Chief Burke’s rise through the department was part and parcel of the department’s comfort with brash, aggressive, toxic policing. As the New York Times reported, as a young police officer Chief Burke had a reputation as an “aggressive street cop” who was noted for “a streak of risky behavior.” He also was alleged to have used police resources to surveil his girlfriends. Neither prevented his rise. After the attack that eventually brought about his federal conviction, Chief Burke bragged that it reminded him of his younger days.
The chasm between the Suffolk County Police Department’s statement distancing itself from Trump’s speech and the actual culture and behavior of the department was no aberration. For example, several articles, including ones by the Washington Post and CNN cited a tweet by Portland, Oregon’s police department stating: “Portland Police Bureau officers are expected to treat everyone with dignity & respect, even when they are a suspect.” These articles failed to mention that Portland police have shot and killed two suspects this year, neither of whom posed a meaningful threat to the officers. The articles also failed to mention that, like Chief Burke in Suffolk County,Portland’s acting police chief has a history of violent behavior and a history ofusing police resources to improperly engage his erstwhile romantic partners.
Other articles, including one by ABC News cited a tweet by the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department stating that his department too “does not condone the mistreatment of prisoners” and “treat[s] arrested persons with respect and dignity.” That ABC News article failed to mention thePhiladelphia Police Department’s “long, fraught history” of “rough rides,” in which “police throw arrestees into police vans and take them on seatbelt-less drive[s] aimed at knocking them around on the way to the station house.”
Similarly, numerous articles cited a statement from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) distancing themselves from Trump’s comments, without mentioning that the current Commissioner of Baltimore’s Police Department — the department famous for the “rough ride” that ended in Freddie Gray’s death — sits on the IACP’s board of directors. Anthony Batts, the Baltimore Police Commissioner at the time of Freddie Gray’s death wasalso a member of IACP.
The most notable thing about Trump’s speech in Suffolk County was neither what Trump said nor the statements police departments issued in response — rather it was how the law enforcement personnel in Trump’s audience spontaneously reacted in real time. As Trump gave the thumbs up to police gratuitously roughing up arrestees, the officers in the audience laughed and cheered. That reaction speaks volumes. It is the behavior of police, not the formal public statements police departments issue for media consumption, that best reveals the culture of American policing.
What that behavior reveals is that, despite those public statements distancing the profession from what Trump said, Trump’s speech was not so much a break with the culture of policing, as it was the unabashed, forthright expression of that culture. For the policing profession, the problem with Trump is not that he threatens their values, but that he reveals their values and expresses them too frankly.