Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Response to Trump’s speech fails to acknowledge police brutality

Response to Trump’s speech fails to acknowledge police brutality


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 PostA 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.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

California Sheriff and D.A. disagree on a sheriff deputy’s decision to shoot

California Sheriff and D.A. disagree on a sheriff deputy’s decision to shoot


After he shot Stan Severi last December in Tehachapi, California, Sheriff’s Deputy Gabriel Romo admitted to making a near-fatal mistake. Severi was unarmed, but Romo believed he was reaching for a gun and fired a single shot at Severi’s abdomen. The deputy realized shortly after taking the shot that Severi didn’t have a weapon. Nevertheless, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green announced last Friday that Romo’s use of force was justified.

Details of the shooting seem all too familiar: an officer fired his weapon at an unarmed person, an investigation was launched, and the shooting was dubbed “objectively reasonable” by a district attorney. But in the case of Romo and Severi, there’s been an unexpected twist to a national pattern that’s played out over and over and over again. While Green says Romo’s decision to pull the trigger was appropriate, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) disagrees.

On the night of December 11, 2016, Romo was instructed to follow up on a domestic dispute at Severi’s home. According to a media advisory released by Green’s office last week, Severi disregarded Romo’s orders to “come here” — pushing the deputy’s hand and pulling his own hand away. Romo then handcuffed Severi’s wrist and explained that he was being detained, but not arrested, for his noncompliance. Moments later, Severi “made a sudden move with his right hand towards his waist.” Romo was unable to see if Severi was armed, but he “thought Mr. Severi was reaching for a gun.” Responding to what he perceived as a threat, Romo pulled out his own gun and fired a single shot, after which he realized Severi was unarmed.

Severi survived, but his spleen was removed and his ribs were fractured. His wife later wrote on Facebook that “the only way Stan fought back is by pulling his arm back to his hip.”

Despite Romo’s serious error, Green’s office argued last week that his actions were reasonable. “Deputy Romo believed Mr. Severi was going to use a firearm because he saw him take a stance consistent, in his experience and training, with a shooting stance,” Friday’s advisory says. “Additionally, he saw Mr. Severi make a movement with his hand as if he were reaching towards his waistband for a gun.” But Green’s conclusion differs from the conclusion drawn by Romo’s own colleagues. After conducting its own investigation, the KCSO argued that the Romo had violated department protocol. (The KCSO has yet to clarify which policy was broken.)

For a prosecutor to decide use of force was reasonable is par for the course. For a sheriff’s office to publicly acknowledge wrongdoing is unusual. Just as police chiefs and unions justify violence committed by officers nationwide, sheriffs go to great lengths to defend their deputies’ violent behavior or other forms of misconduct. Such a disagreement between KCSO and Green’s office is especially shocking because Kern County is notorious for police brutality and misconduct, as well as a glaring failure to anyone in law enforcement accountable.

In 2015, the Guardian discovered that Kern County has the most police and deputy-involved shootings per capita than any other county. According to the news organization’s five-part investigation, no officer involved shooting by the KCSO’s deputies or police officers in the county’s largest city, Bakersfield, has been found unjustified. The KCSO and the Bakersfield Police Department are currently under investigation by the Department of Justice, due to allegations “of excessive force and other serious misconduct.” Given this context, it is noteworthy that the KCSO recognizes that a shooting was out of line.

Green’s conclusion is much less surprising. Even when her office concedes that officers engaged in illegal activity, she refuses to charge them. In January, she admitted that two black college students were wrongfully stopped, detained, and arrested for walking in the street by the BPD. Despite these violations, she gave the officers the benefit of the doubt and declined to press charges. “Sometimes officers can make good faith mistakes and there’s exceptions built into the law that allows them to conduct a search. In this case there’s no exception that allows them to,” the district attorney said. “They didn’t have any reason to contact them.”

The district attorney also declined to prosecute two detectives who were discovered to have “falsified reports, lied to supervisors, stole drugs, misappropriated money, helped drug dealers and drank on duty.” She merely informed defense attorneys that cases were possibly “tainted” and said her office would re-litigate cases involving any defendants who sought retrials.

KCSO’s findings of misconduct have yet to be revealed in full. But the Romo case is further proof that Green has no interest in holding cops accountable.

More in Explainers

The bail bond company financing Brooklyn DA candidate Eric Gonzalez

The bail bond company financing Brooklyn DA candidate Eric Gonzalez


Eric Gonzalez has a longstanding reputation as a “pure district attorney” and criminal justice reformer.

Before assuming his position as the Brooklyn District Attorney in 2016, following the death of much-beloved predecessor Ken Thompson, Gonzalez worked on a policy to scale back the prosecution of low-level marijuana offenders. He also assisted in the creation and implementation of a Conviction Review Unit that investigates cases for people who may have been wrongfully convicted. Once he became the district attorney, Gonzalez announced his office would consider collateral immigration consequences when prosecuting low-level, undocumented defendants. He even vocalized support for the closing of Rikers Island jail. Last Thursday, he dismissed 143,000 warrants for low-level offenses.

So why is the incumbent in Brooklyn’s competitive district attorney race accepting campaign contributions from a bail bond company that preys on poor defendants?

Generally speaking, bail bond companies purport to help poor people get out of jail in lieu of languishing behind bars pretrial. They are often portrayed as wholesome family-owned businesses, but the companies are really part of a massive corporate industry that exploits indigent defendants and their families. Defendants pay bondsmen approximately 10 percent of the set bail amount — a non-refundable fee. The bondsmen then secure defendants’ release by ensuring courts that clients will show up for trial, otherwise the bondsman will be responsible for the full bail amount. Clients are frequently forced to chalk up other forms of collateral, in addition to the non-refundable fee. And if defendants miss a court date, bondsmen may send bounty hunters to catch and rearrest them using a variety of illegal tactics.

Prosecutors in New York City have a long history of locking up poor people of color who have yet to be convicted but are unable to afford bail. Enter the city’s “predatory” bail bond industry, which made $14 million to $20 million last year, according to a report by the Brooklyn Community Fund, an organization dedicated to paying people’s bail with no strings attached. The Fund discovered that more than 11,000 people turned to the bail bond industry last year, but there is little regulation of collectors.

One company benefiting from the city’s lucrative bail industry, Empire Bail Bonds, is helping bankroll Gonzalez’ campaign. The company donated $7,500 to the candidate between last December and July.

Empire claims to be “the largest bail bond company in New York State,” and is run by the “Royal Family” of collectors. The company’s leader is “Bail Bonds Queen” Michelle Esquenazi, whose biography on the Empire website states that she can “get you out of any jam” — comforting language to people who are scraping together funds to help themselves or loved ones get out of jail. But a close look at Empire’s leader shows that the company is more interested in turning a profit than helping poor people who haven’t been found guilty of a crime.

“I insure your appearance in court for the good people of the proud state of New York,” Esquenazi told a group of students in 2015, a moment captured in a Buzzfeed profile of the bond queen. “That means that, for me, you are walking money. I own your body.” She has no problem sending bounty hunters to track down anyone who skip bail, and treats clients more like assets than people.

In the profile, Esquenazi described the way she taunted one of her clients to ensure his compliance. To send a message that freedom could be revoked at any time, she had someone greet the client with a bologna sandwich and milk cartoon — a standard meal for Rikers inmates — upon his release.

“The thing about defendants is no matter who they are — they can come in white, black, green or purple polka dots. They’re all dumb,” she told the New York Post in 2013. “Every single last one of them is stupid.”

The bond queen is active on Twitter, using the social media platform to blast proponents of criminal justice reform.

Esquenazi has also used Twitter to spew racially-charged rhetoric. She calledthe football players protesting police violence a “BUNCH OF DISRESPECTFUL, OVERPAID, THUGS” and retweeted a baseless claim that Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour is a terrorist.

Empire’s leadership seems to view Gonzalez as the candidate most likely to maintain the status quo. The district attorney believes defendants should be held on bail for nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors, so it is unsurprising that the company would back him financially.

It makes much less sense for Gonzalez, who has positioned himself as a champion of criminal justice reform, to accept Empire’s contributions.

On its own, Gonzalez’ refusal to take on bail reform as part of his campaign indicates the district attorney is out of step with bipartisan legislatorscelebritiespolicy expertsjudges, and civil rights groups who are fighting for the rights of poor defendants. Gonzalez says he wants to help low-level defendants, but his support of bail translates to support of an abusive practice that traps those defendants in a cycle of poverty and criminal justice involvement. He says he agrees with the decision to shut down Rikers, but endorses the system that has funneled countless defendants into the notoriously violent facility.

To go so far as to accept money from a woman whose career depends on shaking down the very people he professes to help may indicate that Gonzalez isn’t the reformer he says he is. Nevertheless, he still paints himself as someone who is fair on bail and understands that the current system must change. “Now the standard [for bail] is risk of return,” Gonzalez said during a recent candidate forum. “We really should be asking for bail only when public safety demands it and not simply risk of return.”

“I stand with all of you to say that I believe that we can end mass incarceration while continuing to keep our city and our borough safe,” he said. In reality, the predatory bail bond industry from which he is profiting is fueling mass incarceration of Brooklyn residents.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, the New York Daily News reported that Gonzalez returned campaign donations made by bail bond companies. “Our campaign’s progressive supporters in the criminal justice reform community understand that Eric Gonzalez is a champion for bail reform and other significant reforms of the criminal justice system,” spokeswoman Lupe Todd-Medina told the publication.

More in Podcasts