On Friday, President Donald Trump addressed a crowd of police officers in Long Island, New York, and sent a shocking message to the nation. Trump’s words are worth repeating in full, as they are an explicit endorsement of police brutality:
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody—don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK?”
The remark received laughter and applause, but was followed by sharp rebukes from police departments and organizations around the country. “The @POTUS made remarks today that endorsed and condoned police brutality. GPD rejects these remarks and continues to serve with respect,” the Gainesville, Fla., Police Department tweeted, while Long Island’s Suffolk County Police Department said, “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners.” Similar statements were issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and police departments from most major U.S. cities. Even the acting director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg, told his staff in an internal memo that Trump “condoned police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement ... we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later tried to claim that Trump was only joking. Words matter, and the president’s endorsement gives license to people to commit acts of violence. We in society give police the power to kill. The abuse of this police power has become a central issue in the United States, from the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three years ago this week, to the violent arrest and death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore police, and on and on, with over 1,000 police killings annually.
Much of Trump’s Long Island speech focused on the Department of Homeland Security and its subordinate divisions, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Earlier this year, Sean Spicer, then Trump’s press secretary, said, “The president wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies.” On the day of the speech, Trump promoted his homeland security secretary, Gen. John Kelly, to be his White House chief of staff.
The death of 16-year-old Cruz Marcelino Velazquez Acevedo is one tragic example of why these agencies need “shackles,” or, at least, strictly enforced standards of professional conduct and accountability. On Nov. 18, 2013 (during the Obama administration), Velasquez attempted to enter the U.S. from Tijuana, Mexico, through the official port of entry. He was detained, then questioned by two CBP officers, Valerie Baird and Adrian Parellon. Velasquez had two bottles of an amber liquid in his bag. He was carrying concentrated methamphetamine for one of the Mexican drug cartels. His sister believes the cartel threatened to kill her and others in their family if he refused to carry the drugs.
Under interrogation, the teenager said the liquid was apple juice. Laughing, the two agents allegedly told him to drink the liquid to prove it. He complied, taking four sips, later described as 100 times the lethal dose of methamphetamine. He went into convulsions in front of them, and within two hours was dead.
“Instead of testing the liquid, which is what protocol would require them to do—they have a test kit right there handy—they decided to toy with the young man,” investigative journalist John Carlos Frey said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. He recently broadcast the CBP surveillance video on ABC News’ “20/20.” Agents Baird and Parellon were never reprimanded or taken off duty for their conduct that allegedly caused the teen’s death. The U.S. government recently settled a civil lawsuit with the boy’s family for $1 million, but admitted no wrongdoing.
Of Trump’s plans to add 15,000 agents to ICE and CBP, Frey says, “We are increasing the size of our force at the border with very little oversight and very little of a reprimand structure.” The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Council are calling for tighter oversight of DHS agents, as well as mandatory body cameras on agents to record all interactions.
Donald Trump’s call for police brutality was not his first public incitement to violence. He has on multiple occasions encouraged crowds to attack protesters and journalists. Trump’s calls for violence are no joke, and people across the political spectrum should demand an end to his violent rhetoric.