The inherent difference between being a TV celebrity and the leader of the free world continues to elude President Donald Trump. Delivering a speech in front of a large contingent of law enforcement officers in Suffolk County, N.Y., on Friday, Trump breezily joked — one assumes — about police roughing up suspects in custody. Maybe a late-night comedian can get away with such cheap one-liners, but the president of the United States needs to be better than that. New White House chief of staff John Kelly, the sober-minded, retired four-star Marine Corps general, should make that clear to him.
While praising local and federal officers for their work in pursuing members of the treacherous MS-13 street gang, Trump suggested cops need not be "too nice'' when throwing suspects in "the back of a paddy wagon.'' Describing how officers often use their hands to protect someone in handcuffs from banging their head while getting in a car, Trump said, "You can take the hand away, okay.''
Trump needs to understand that his words matter. Always. When the topic is as volatile as police brutality, the president cannot risk having his meaning misconstrued for the sake of a sound bite. "It doesn't matter if it was meant to be a casual, off-the-cuff Trump-ism,'' said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. "Comments about a cop using force should never be made casually.''
The amount of violence perpetrated by street gangs in Suffolk County may have made a get-tough-on-crime speech appropriate for Trump, but the locale also made his joke even more inappropriate. Nine months ago, the former chief of the Suffolk County Police Department was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for beating up a handcuffed suspect and then trying to cover up the crime. The suspect had broken into the chief's vehicle and stolen a bag filled with sex toys and pornography.
From Los Angeles to New York, police departments have issued official statements in recent days pushing back against Trump's words. The St. Petersburg Police Department sent out a tweet on Saturday emphasizing its policy of treating everyone with dignity. Police Chief Tony Holloway said officers have worked hard to earn the trust of St. Petersburg residents, and he felt the need to reiterate that with the tweet. "We shouldn't have to tell people that we're not going to tolerate that kind of behavior but unfortunately that perception does exist in the minds of some,'' Holloway said. "I've already spoken to some ministers in the community, who know how hard we've worked, and they were glad we put the statement out just so people knew where we stood.''
These are highly charged times on American streets. It is possible to be concerned both with the number of well-known cases of excessive force around the nation, as well as the subsequent public skepticism that threatens the safety of the overwhelming number of police officers honorably doing their jobs. "These type of comments do not help the current environment,'' Gualtieri said. "It does nothing to build trust and confidence in law enforcement.''
This isn't the first time Trump has entertained the notion of physical threats or violence while in front of a large audience. While on the campaign trail in 2016, he often endorsed the idea of roughing up hecklers or protesters, and has repeatedly called journalists the enemy of the people. As a candidate, his words were reckless and irresponsible. As the president, that type of talk is utterly unacceptable.
Bringing discipline, professionalism and seriousness of purpose to the words coming from the White House is one of the many jobs the new chief of staff Kelly has before him. His role, within hours of his swearing in, in the removal of the profane Anthony Scaramucci from his position as communications director is a hopeful sign. More responsible talk and less tweeting from the president himself would be another.