An almost off-hand remark by President Trump during an address to police officers last week was swiftly denounced by police officials in red and blue states alike. As the Washington Post reports, “some police leaders worried that three sentences uttered by the president… could up-end nearly three decades of fence-mending.”
Speaking to officers gathered on Long Island for an event focused on gang violence, Trump spoke about “roughing up” suspects and said: “When you guys put someone in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, ‘don’t hit their head’ and they just killed somebody – don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away. Okay?”
Denunciation of the comments came from police departments across the country. Even the department Trump had addressed, in Suffolk County, New York, put out a statement rejecting his suggestion that ignoring the right of people being arrested would be OK in certain circumstances. At the most basic level, an admonition to police to mistreat suspects goes against the presumption of innocence that lies at the base of American law. On a more immediate level it raises fears, as the Post notes, that individual officers will find encouragement in the president’s words, seeing in them a kind of validation for bad, even illegal, behavior.
This comes at a time when the Justice Department has been seeking to roll back the consent decrees it negotiated with “dozens of law enforcement agencies” during the Obama years, according to a New York Times analysis published last April (see link below). Consent decrees are agreements between a federal and state or local officials in which the latter acknowledge a pattern of inappropriate actions and agree on a series of steps to correct them. These are drawn up in cooperation with federal authorities.
People around the country need to know, however, that even if the administration in Washington no longer believes that preventing police abuse is an issue, remedies for illegal police behavior still exist through our court system. The body of law known collectively as ‘1983 Cases’ (a reference to 42 US Code 1983) offers significant protections for Americans who believe that those in positions of power have denied or violated their civil rights.
The events we have seen in both large and small cities over the last few years only underscore the importance of these legal protections. Section 1983 allows suits to go ahead when a government body “subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” In plain language: it protects ordinary Americans from actions that might deny or limit their rights.
Presidents, of course, do not control local police forces and the reaction to Trump’s remarks was heartening. It also, however, sends a signal that is both powerful and dangerous. As a Portland attorney with a long history of defending Oregonians and Washingtonians I am glad to know that the courts are here to offer justice when police or other government authorities overstep their bounds. At a time when the Justice Department in Washington is retreating from oversight of law enforcement agencies, it is good to know that our courts are still here to do that job.
Washington Post: U.S. police chiefs blast Trump for endorsing ‘police brutality’
New York Times: Sweeping Federal Review Could Affect Consent Decrees Nationwide
Cornell University Legal Information Institute: 42 US Code 1983