Donald Trump evoked the tactic on Friday that led to Freddie Gray's death.
Addressing law enforcement in New York on Friday, President Donald Trump gave police officers nationwide a green light to engage in violence against suspects.
His appeal was not subtle. The president was speaking in Brentwood about the menace of MS-13, a gang with a heavy presence in Long Island. Describing the gang members as “animals,” the president suggested that law enforcement adopt more physically violent methods when apprehending suspects.
Methods that may have caused the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered fatal injuries while in the custody of Baltimore police officers.
“When you see these towns, and you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see ‘em thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,’” Trump said. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head—the way you put the 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.’”
Trump’s comments stand as a near verbatim endorsement of “rough rides” and other such forms of casual police brutality. A rough ride, also known as a nickel ride or a screen test, involves a police officer intentionally failing to secure a handcuffed suspect in the back of a police van. A suspect who isn’t strapped in with a seatbelt and can’t stabilize himself gets roughed up by the ride, particularly when the police drive erratically. In Gray’s case, he sustained injuries to his spinal cord that proved fatal.
Gray’s death in April 2015 triggered violent protests, a failed series of criminal trials against the police officers involved in his death, and a sweeping report from the U.S. Department of Justice on racist practices and civil rights abuses in the Baltimore Police Department. Despite the investigation, the public is still no closer to understanding what Gray allegedly did to attract the attention of the police in the first place. Or why he was treated to such violence.
The Trump administration has pushed back against reformers since coming into office. In January, the city of Baltimore and the DOJ reached a consent decree over the abuses of the Baltimore Police Department. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to squash it; a federal judge approved the consent decree in April over his head.
Now Trump himself is saying that the very practices thought to have caused Gray’s death should not only be tolerated; they should be encouraged.
In his speech to Long Island law enforcement, Trump was referring to members of MS-13, who he has mentioned frequently—and in increasingly ghoulish terms—to justify his hardline stance on the border. (Also to distract from legislative failures and palace intrigues.) At a rally in Ohio, the president summoned an image of violent predators assaulting innocent girls with knives: a crime Trump invented whole-cloth, if one based on a familiar racist trope. By painting suspects as super villains, Trump justifies the use of brutal tactics against them and authorizes police officers to mete out martial justice.
In fact, Trump’s policies may benefit MS-13. Mass deportations in the 1990s strengthened the gang and helped it to develop international roots. Immigrant communities who fear deportation are reluctant to come forward and report gang activity to the police. That intelligence is vital to battling organized crime; communities who already fear reprisals from gangs will not talk to the authorities if they fear them, too.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police swiftly released a statement rejecting Trump’s recommendation. The statement acknowledges the use of force as a challenge for law enforcement, one that requires extensive training. The IACP further recognizes a responsibility to protect even those suspected of criminal wrongdoing. “Law enforcement officers are trained to treat all individuals, whether they are a complainant, suspect, or defendant, with dignity and respect,” the statement reads. “This is the bedrock principle behind the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy.”
Those principles are far from apparent everywhere. With the U.S. Attorney General dialing back efforts to ensure that police officers do not engage in casual brutality—and with the president indulging explicitly in violent justice—those principles may in fact be endangered.