President Donald Trump’s comments to a meeting of police officers last Friday were not merely outrageous—although they were. They were not simply unprofessional—although they were.
Trump’s words were a crime.
The president effectively incited a specific group of people to commit criminal assault.
The law on this point is quite clear. Our First Amendment protects all manner of offensive speech, including hate speech related to race, religion, sexual orientation, and everything else.
But First Amendment protection stops at the point of direct incitement to criminal conduct.
In short, I can call you all the names in the book. But if I tell someone or a group of people to beat you up, then I have committed a crime.
When Trump told police officers to “Please, don’t be too nice,” he incited them to violent actions. And he gave a very specific example, by telling them not to cover a suspect’s head when placing that person in a patrol car.
“You can take the hand away, O.K.?” he said to laughter and some cheers from his audience.
In short, he says it’s OK to deliberately injure someone.
Imagine a mayor or president of a university president telling a group of people to “go out and beat up some immigrants.” That would be incitement as well.
And in Trump’s case, he was speaking directly to the very people who are in a position to carry out his words.
Fortunately, the leaders of American law enforcement have quickly and almost unanimously repudiated Trump’s remarks.
Charles Ramsey, former chief of the Washington, DC police department, pointed out that “words matter,” and that a president’s words “can actually influence behavior.”
Ramsey was co-chair of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and one of the most highly respected voices in American law enforcement.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), said Trump’s words were “a green light to use unnecessary force.”
James O’Neill, the commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), called Trump’s remarks “irresponsible” and “unprofessional,” and ordered all members of his force to disregard Trump’s comments.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the professional association of all law enforcement chief executives, released a statement declaring as a “bedrock principle” that officers must “ensure that any use of force is carefully applied and objectively reasonable.”
These are all powerful and respected voices.
The tragedy of Trump’s remarks is that they threaten to undermine all the positive reforms that have occurred since the terrible events in Ferguson, Mo., three years ago this month.
All across the country, police departments are adopting the recommendations of the 21st Century task force on policing about de-escalating police-community resident encounters, about the need to be more open and transparent regarding policies and enforcement practices, and about the importance of building trust and legitimacy for the police.
As a precaution, every police chief in the country should follow the NYPD’s example and send out a training reminder to his or her officers, instructing them to reread the department’s policy on use of force.
Each chief should also instruct all patrol sergeants to conduct a short roll-call training session on the department’s policy.
What should Trump do now?
He should utter the words he has never spoken: “I made a mistake. I am sorry.”
He should clearly correct the record to say that he does not encourage any unlawful or unnecessary violence by police officers.
Let’s hope he does so. The future of American policing depends on it.
Samuel Walker, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is a frequent contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.