In my 14 years of law enforcement service, I would be lying if I said I never wanted to hit a suspect’s head on the side of the car. I have arrested burglars, robbers, drunk drivers, murderers and people who exploit children. I have been called every name in the book by them and I’ve had my life put in danger by their actions (that’s not to say everyone I’ve arrested is a bad person—some just made stupid mistakes). And after a car or foot chase, when your adrenaline is pumping, it takes a lot of self-control to make sure the only force you use is enough force necessary to effect an arrest. But what separates cops from the criminals we arrest is that we must exercise that self-control, and treat those within our custody with dignity and respect and never let our emotions get the best of us.
While discussing the rise in gang crime on Long Island, N.Y., last week, President Trump told a group of uniformed law enforcement officers to cheers that they shouldn’t “be too nice” to “thugs” and that cops should feel free to bang suspect’s heads on the side of the police car as they place them in the rear seat. He further advocated for the “rough” treatment of “thugs” as they are “being thrown into the back of the paddy wagon.” While these comments hopefully were just jokes, the fact is such statements do not belong anywhere, let alone at a speech given by the president of the United States.
Over the past 50 years, major cities in the United States have been ground zero for violent turmoil that was sparked by the actual or perceived “rough” treatment of suspects by the police. In the late ’60s, Watts, Newark and Detroit looked like war zones after days of riots. National Guard troops were required to be deployed to restore order. In 1992, Downtown Los Angeles burned over six days resulting in over $1 billion in property damage and the loss of 63 lives. More recently, Baltimore faced weeks of rioting resulting in damage to hundreds of businesses and vehicles and the burning of buildings. “Roughing” up suspects is no laughing matter.
Anyone who has ever been assigned a beat knows how important having the community on your side is and how the person you arrested yesterday might save your life today.
July 24, 1994, then police officer Kenneth Hogan of the Irvington, N.J. Police Department was shot at 19 times by a semi-automatic firearm, including four times at point-blank range while trying to arrest a drug suspect. Hogan was struck in the head, spine, shoulder and hand. When Sgt. Hogan addressed my police academy class less than a decade later, one thing he said stood out to me. It was the community that day that helped save his life. Because Hogan had a reputation in that neighborhood for being a fair and honest cop, and not one that would “rough” up suspects, after the shooting, the 9-1-1 calls poured in to report “officer down” and the location of the suspect. Hogan was rushed to the hospital where his life was saved. The suspect ended up committing suicide a few blocks away. In my own personal experiences, I have had people I’ve arrested in the months prior say to people on the street giving me a hard time, “Leave Maas alone. He’s a good guy.” Now if I had a reputation for being heavy-handed and contemptable, that situation would have turned out much differently.
Regardless of whether the president was joking or not, the chief executive of the United States has no business advocating for police to “rough up” suspects. Those of us that wear a badge have a hard enough time in the streets these days without such rhetoric coming out of his office. And although the president may think that we “[shouldn’t] be too nice,” those of us whose lives depend on it every day know better.
Ari L. Maas is a law enforcement professional with more than 14 years of service in two departments in two states. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Rutgers University, a J.D. from New York Law School and a Master of Public Policy degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is a licensed attorney in both New York and New Jersey.