Trump's reckless words aren't the support law enforcement needs

President Trump: Don't be too nice
President Trump: Don't be too nice

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President Trump: Don't be too nice 00:47

Story highlights

  • James Gagliano: Donald Trump's MS-13 speech made many law enforcement officials uncomfortable
  • Members of law enforcement took an oath to protect and serve -- they must ignore Trump's reckless hyperbole, he writes

James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John's University in Queens, New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)President Donald Trump's speech last Friday was ostensibly to lay out the framework for his administration's policy to confront the violent street gang MS-13.

But he strayed from his prepared remarks about combating the gang and raised eyebrows with his clarion call for law enforcement to mistreat citizens in their custody: "When you see thugs thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. You just see them thrown in --- rough. I said, 'Please don't be too nice.'" Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, said Monday that the president was only joking when he made that comment.
James Gagliano
Regardless of their true intent, the President's words were irresponsible and reckless. And witnessing the tepid and obligatory applause that he dutifully received from the staged backdrop of uniformed police officers left many former and current law enforcement officials disappointed and uncomfortable with the message.
    The President has enjoyed rather broad support from the ranks of law enforcement. Members of the thin blue line typically appreciate politicians who pledge to be tough on crime, promise to provide the resources necessary for police to do their jobs and allow all the facts to come in before pronouncing judgment on highly publicized and potentially incendiary officer-involved-shootings.
    But this support can certainly erode. Policing is a difficult enough job as it is. And we haven't always been our best advocates. Take the recent case of former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, found in criminal contempt for "flagrant disregard" of a court order against racial profiling.
    The President's words serve only to further inflame tensions between many police departments and the communities of color that they serve. So it was exceedingly important for high-ranking police officials to get out in front of the dangerous comments.
    The Suffolk County Police Department responded almost immediately, "We do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners." Even the head of the nation's largest police force felt compelled to weigh in. James O'Neill, the police commissioner of the New York Police Department, said, "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."
    I have spoken to a number of former FBI colleagues and uniformed police officials. Most echoed O'Neill's remarks, stating they found the President's words distasteful. Some attempted to explain it away as -- "That's just how the President speaks. No one took it seriously." But I caution that while, perhaps, most will dismiss his comments, what about the few who may take him seriously?
    And others might also argue that this speech is exactly what law enforcement officials have been waiting for. After all, law enforcement didn't have a particularly chummy relationship with Barack Obama. And Trump promised during the campaign that he would supply material and moral support to law enforcement ranks that have been demoralized by criticism and opportunistic bashing from multiple circles. Stands to reason that the thin blue line would find this vocal support welcome and refreshing.
    But the President needs to understand that his popularity with law enforcement must be viewed through the complicated prism that was the 2016 election. In September, Police Magazine conducted a presidential survey that solicited the voting intentions of its 59,238 readers -- all working officers. A total of 3,652 responded. And while 84% stated they supported Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton's 8% support --- Gary Johnson received 5% of the vote and the last 3% was for "other" --- the more telling statistics are found here.
    50% of pro-Trump respondents said they supported him because they agreed with his "tough on crime" rhetoric. However, 37% of pro-Trump respondents said they chose him because "he is not Hillary Clinton." This shows that Trump's support with law enforcement may not be as strong as we might otherwise think -- and it certainly creates fertile ground for dissension.
    And while his supporters may argue that the applauding uniformed officers positioned behind the president in Suffolk County, New York, were reacting spontaneously and organically, it appears to me that they were as caught off guard as the rest of us. In that scenario, who among us wouldn't feel compelled to act politely, no matter how taken aback they were by the comments? Law enforcement professionals are taught to honor and respect rank and position.
    The President needs to understand that what he offered up as "support" is not what law enforcement is seeking. In other words, law enforcement isn't seeking the tacit support to mishandle and mistreat our citizens. We want to be supported in a manner befitting a noble profession where the vast majority of us are honorable public servants dedicated to protecting those who require our assistance -- not brutalizing those we have already placed in handcuffs.
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    Members of law enforcement who took an oath to protect and serve must ignore the reckless hyperbole of a President who appeared to encourage them to flout the rules and disregard the protocols for arrests and custodial treatment of prisoners. Future misconduct by police should never be excused by a citation of the President's own words. Words matter. And words can be misconstrued.
    This should frighten all of us as potentially pernicious to the tenuous détente reached between communities and those sworn to protect them.