Editor’s Note: Brandon del Pozo is the chief of police of Burlington, Vermont. He served on the New York Police Department from 1997 to 2015, where he commanded two patrol precincts. He is an executive fellow at the Police Foundation in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Brandon del Pozo says he's confronted -- and controlled -- his own occasional momentary rage as a cop
He says criminals act on such emotions; cops can't. This is why Trump's remarks to cops on violence were so offensive
When I was a New York Police Department cop in East Flatbush in 2000, I once rushed into an apartment building with fellow officers on a call of an assault. We found a boy in the hallway under attack. He was crying, and bleeding from stab wounds inflicted by his mother’s boyfriend. The boy ran into my arms. Our sergeant confronted his attacker. He could have shot the man. Instead, he fought him into submission.
The boy had been stabbed because he had called the police while the man was attacking his mother. She was lying on the hallway stairs in a pool of blood. That her son had served as a distraction was probably the only reason she survived. “You saved our lives,” the boy sobbed. He hugged me. His blood and tears wet my shirt.
As the suspect sat there in handcuffs waiting to be led away, I asked him why he had stabbed a child. “Boy gotta learn not to get in a man’s business,” he said. “So now he learned.” A fury rose within me that nearly caused me to shake. “We should have shot you,” I said.
But we didn’t shoot him, nor did we lay a hand on him once he’d surrendered. Policing requires dealing with the emotions cops are bound to feel when they witness the worst things one person can do to another. It is criminals who act on these emotions and attack other people. Restraint is what separates policing from vigilantism.
Now we have a President who appears to want police to satisfy their primal urges. Either as a joke – as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders has now suggested – or as one of many true things that have been said in jest, President Donald Trump addressed a roomful of officers on Long Island on Friday and invited them to be “rough” with their suspects. He advised them to be free with their hands as they shoved arrestees into squad cars, to “not be too nice.” His grin and his pause for an ovation erased any uncertainty about his message.
An elected official could only say what Trump said if he didn’t understand policing. People who’ve gained this type of experience know the real possibility of a cop losing his temper, how hard we have to guard against it, and how much it would erode the trust we strive for between police and the people they serve.
It also seems like the President doesn’t understand certain things about America. There has been enough confirmed police brutality here to send chills down the spine of a reasonable person watching the President and a crowd of cops joke and laugh about it. It’s like laughing about the dire consequences of inadequate health care, or the opioid crisis.
It’s also clear that President Trump has never had to fire or arrest a police officer: The cop sits there in front of you, replaying a moment in his mind, wishing he could take it back. He put on the uniform to be one of the good guys, and now he’s on the opposite side of the table. He worries about supporting his family.
The way to get our officers to retirement safely, after a satisfying career, is to lead them through policing’s cauldron. Excessive force could get them fired or arrested. Making light of it is a failure of leadership.
It was hard to watch a roomful of officers laugh and applaud in response to Trump’s remarks. The only charitable explanation was that it indicated a sense of relief that the President understood how vicious some criminals are and how frustrating the work of bringing them to justice can be. The more likely explanation is that the President has a talent for bringing out the darker side of people, and this was another example of it.
What we witnessed will drive a deeper wedge between the police and the citizens whose mistrust of them has grown. It will cast doubt on legitimate uses of force.
What troubles me the most about the President’s remarks, however, is the way they patronized police officers. He has never held a wounded child in his arms or had to decide whether to punch or shoot a man with a knife. He has never had to race to the scene of a police shooting and choke on his feelings as he hunts for a suspect with precision and restraint. His remarks failed to take police work and its hazards seriously.
When I later served as a precinct commander in the Bronx, a sergeant of mine was suspended because he stood there and did nothing as he watched an officer slam a handcuffed suspect’s head into the street. A narcotics detective had been shot during a scuffle with a drug crew, the responding officers were blind with rage, and one exacted revenge. When a video surfaced, the emotions didn’t convey. It just looked thuggish, like the cop was a criminal, too.
By his own account, it seems the President would also have been inclined to stand there and do nothing. There are thousands of American police chiefs who know what these situations require. They want to protect their officers by leading them in the right direction. We don’t need the President joking with them about giving in to their baser instincts.