Column: The county, the president, and police brutality


There have been visits by U.S. presidents to Suffolk County through the years, starting with the first, George Washington, who stayed at Sagtikos Manor in 1790. In recent decades, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were here.

But no appearance of a president in Suffolk came close to sparking controversy here and around the nation as Donald Trump’s visit two weeks ago.

It was at Suffolk County Community College’s Brentwood campus, where Mr. Trump gave a speech on gang violence to an auditorium of police officers, most from Suffolk. The Associated Press article was headlined: “Trump to Police: ‘Please Don’t Be Too Nice.’”

That reflected Mr. Trump’s comment: “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, and I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’’’ Mr. Trump also declared: “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 … I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’”

The AP reported: “His comments elicited cheers from the audience of officers.”

There are some who are defending Mr. Trump’s comments. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary, termed his comments “a joke” when questioned about them at a White House press conference.

Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco told Newsday last week, “I think he was trying to be funny.” (The Newsday story noted that Mr. DeMarco, who is not running for re-election, is under consideration to be a Trump appointee to the U.S. Marshall’s office in Manhattan.)

But the Suffolk County Police Department isn’t laughing. Within two hours of the president’s remarks, the department issued a statement: “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners.” The department “has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners. Violations of those rules are treated extremely seriously.”

DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, released a statement: “The challenges facing law enforcement today are enormous, made all the more difficult by the danger of gangs like MS-13, which are infiltrating our communities, murdering innocent people and destroying the peace and safety that are the very fabric of our lives.

However, divisive and offensive rhetoric that incites further violence and insinuates police violence is not the answer. That would be endorsing behavior that is unfitting to the honorable profession of law enforcement.”

The International Association of Police Chiefs, with a membership of 27,000, declared: “Managing use of force is one of the most difficult challenges faced by law enforcement agencies … Law enforcement officers are trained to treat all individuals, whether they are a complainant, suspect, or defendant, with dignity and respect. This is the bedrock principle behind the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy.”

New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill said his department’s training and policies “only allow for measures that are reasonable and necessary under any circumstances, including the arrest and transportation of prisoners.

To suggest that police officers apply any standard in the use of force other than what is reasonable and necessary is irresponsible, unprofessional and sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public.”

Meanwhile, a variety of media, including The New York Times in an editorial, connected the dots between Mr. Trump’s comments and ongoing federal oversight of the county department, plus the highest uniformed officer in the department presently in jail for brutality of a suspect.

The AP article stated: “Mr. Trump’s words were particularly sensitive in Suffolk County. The county’s Police Department agreed to federal oversight in 2013 after allegations of discrimination against Latinos.

And a former chief, James Burke, was sentenced in November to 46 months in federal prison for beating up a man who had stolen a duffel bag containing pornography and sex toys out of his car and then for attempting to cover up the assault and other misdeeds. Other officers also pleaded guilty in that case.”

The New York Times editorial concluded: “Law enforcement backlash against this speech says something about how forward-looking police officials think about their responsibilities.” It noted how many have “found out the hard way that enforcement strategies based in brutality make it difficult to solve crimes—because they alienate communities from the law.”