(HRW) – It is tempting to dismiss the “look how tough I am” talk from President Donald Trump’s recent speech to police officers as a meaningless rant. His press secretary has suggested that his comments encouraging officers to use unlawful violence against suspects were just a joke.
But the officers in the crowd cheered as the president encouraged them to break the law. Many in law enforcement have since denounced Trump’s comments. But major police organizations, like the Fraternal Order of Police, support administration policies that would remove what few mechanisms for accountability exist when police commit unlawful acts of violence. Trump’s Justice Department has cut back efforts to monitor local departments engaged in systemic abuses. Some Republicans in Congress are pushing the Back the Blue Act, a bill that would limit legal liability for officers who injure or kill people in violation of the law.
Trump has promised to revive the government’s program giving police departments military equipment to use against civilians. These are not small matters: police across the country have shot and killed 581 people already in 2017.
Perhaps more disturbing than Trump’s encouragement of rough treatment of suspects, was his repeated complaint about laws that are “stacked against police.” After boasting about the size of his police motorcycle escort, Trump described a big-talking Chicago cop who said he could “straighten out the problem” in days, if he was given the “authority” to do it. The cop said “We know all the bad ones.”
This story raises many questions: What laws are stacked against the police? What authority do officers lack that is holding them back? Police have authority to arrest when they have probable cause to believe someone has committed a crime. Does Trump believe they should be allowed to arrest without a good reason? They have the authority to use reasonable and necessary force. Does Trump think police should have no limits on their use of violence? Does Trump want to give police authority to simply arrest or abuse anyone they think is a “bad one”?
The laws Trump complains about, which supposedly hamper police, are laws that protect our rights, liberty, and security. These are laws, like our Fourth and Fifth Amendments, that distinguish a free society from a police state. Trump’s fear-mongering, his “jokes,” and the policies he is promoting, are evidence of his disregard for our civil rights.
This report prepared by John Raphling for Human Rights Watch.