In Context: Trump’s comments about treatment of suspects in police custody

President Donald Trump speaks at Suffolk Community College on July 28, 2017, in Brentwood, N.Y.
President Donald Trump speaks at Suffolk Community College on July 28, 2017, in Brentwood, N.Y.

President Donald Trump appeared to complain about suspects in police custody being handled too gently during a speech to law enforcement officials on Long Island, N.Y., on July 28.

"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," Trump said. "I said, ‘You can take the hand away, okay?’ "

"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," Trump added.

The White House downplayed Trump’s comments days later in a July 31 press briefing. "I believe he was making a joke at the time," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.

The White House’s explanation came amid a fierce backlash from members of the law enforcement community, from police chiefs in New York City to St. Petersburg, Fla. In a letter to the Washington Post, J. Thomas Manger, the chief of police of Montgomery County, Md., who also serves as the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said Trump’s speech made police officers’ job more difficult.

"I was appalled when I heard President Trump condone injuring an individual in police custody," Manger wrote in a July 31 letter to the editor. "This violates the Constitution, department policy and the public trust."

New York police commissioner James P. O’Neill called Trump’s comments "irresponsible" and said carrying out his orders would amount to a breach of New York Police Department policies on use of force.

"The NYPD’s training and policies relating to the use of force only allow for measures that are reasonable and necessary under any circumstances, including the arrest and transportation of prisoners," he said in a July 29 statement. "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."

Was Trump joking or encouraging police brutality? Here, we use our periodic In Context feature to show Trump’s comments outside of the soundbites and let readers decide the answer for themselves.

Trump: Right now, we have less than 6,000 Enforcement and Removal Officers in ICE. This is not enough to protect a nation of more than 320 million people. It’s essential that Congress fund another 10,000 ICE officers — and we’re asking for that — so that we can eliminate MS-13 and root out the criminal cartels from our country.

Now, we’re getting them out anyway, but we’d like to get them out a lot faster. And when you see these towns and 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. (Laughter.) 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, okay? (Laughter and applause.)

It’s essential that Congress fund hundreds more federal immigration judges and prosecutors — and we need them quickly, quickly — if we’re going to dismantle these deadly networks. And I have to tell you, you know, the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years they’ve been made to protect the criminal. Totally made to protect the criminal, not the officers. If you do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are. These laws are stacked against you. We’re changing those laws. But in the meantime, we need judges for the simplest thing — things that you should be able to do without a judge. But we have to have those judges quickly. In the meantime, we’re trying to change the laws.