So President Donald Trump was just joking when he suggested police officers should play basketball with the heads of suspects against the doorways of police cars? That's what White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she believed on Monday. The tragedy is that she's right.
One of the many things that we have learned about the nation's self-described "law and order president" is his mammoth appetite for laughter and applause. As a result, he has become the first president in recent memory to have not just one but two speeches repudiated by his host organizations in the same week.
First the Boy Scouts distanced themselves from the starkly political and noticeably bawdy monologue he delivered to thousands of young men and boys at their national jamboree.
Three days later, police officials were doing the same to his advice on policing.
When arresting "these thugs," Trump said Friday to law enforcement officers on Long Island, "please don't be too nice."
Hesitant laughter at that remark turned to applause as Trump continued: "Like when you guys put somebody 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've just killed somebody, don't hit their head. I said, 'You can take the hand away, OK?' "
Oh? Is the president of the United States giving a green light to police officers who want to bang suspects around before they've been formally charged?
"I believe he was making a joke at the time," said Sanders as if she was delivering an autopsy report.
The Suffolk County Police Department was not amused. In an official statement, the department pointed out that it "will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners" and that violations are taken "extremely seriously."
That was comforting to hear, since the biggest complaints against the Suffolk County department have not been charges that it was too nice. The department has been under federal oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice since 2013 amid allegations of discrimination against Latinos and immigrants.
Other police officials across the nation issued similar reactions. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, for example, issued a statement on the use of force by police, saying officers are trained to treat everyone with "dignity and respect."
In an email exchange, Paul Butler, a former District of Columbia prosecutor and author of the new best-seller "Chokehold: Policing Black Men," called Trump's remarks an "encouragement to wanton police violence" and "one of the most irresponsible comments from a president in the last 50 years."
"I'm not surprised that many officers have clapped back on Trump's casual endorsement of violence," said Butler, who now teaches law at Georgetown University. "His view of police as jackbooted thugs who act as judge, juror and executioner will make their jobs harder, not easier."
Still, some police unions and other advocacy groups like Blue Lives Matter dismissed Trump's remarks with the equivalent of, Hey, lighten up; it was a joke.
For example, Detective Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, excused Trump's comments in a statement to CNN as "completely taken out of context by the racially exclusive and divisive profiteers" seeking to question Trump's "support of all law-abiding citizens and the law enforcement (officers) that live and work among them."
As a law-abiding citizen who seeks effective law enforcement, I beg to differ. I oppose Trump's idea of a joke because it gives a simple-minded nod and a wink to the sort of roughhouse policing that alienates police from the communities they're assigned to serve.
Former Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown, who is best known for his handling of the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers by a sniper in July 2016, learned that lesson on the job. In his new memoir, "Called to Rise: A Life in Faithful Service to the Community that Made Me," he describes how he focused on "locking away villains" until he was assigned to a community policing program in the 1990s.
By having police officers "connect with the people they served" through homeowners organizations and other community activities, Dallas' crime rate took a historic decline between 2010 and 2015, until budget cuts led to staffing shortages.
Alas, I'm not holding my breath waiting for Trump to discover the value of community policing. At present, he seems to prefer cracking heads -- or encouraging others to do it.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.