WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, according to his White House spokeswoman, was joking on Friday when he told police officers to be “rough” with suspects, comments that were rebuked by police departments across the country.
“I believe he was making a joke at the time,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters when asked if Trump had a response to the critiques.
Before Sanders’ comments White House officials had declined to say if they had a response to multiple police departments criticizing Trump’s law-and-order speech in New York.
Trump, speaking before officers from Suffolk County Police Department in New York on efforts to combat the gang MS-13, urged officers Friday to be “rough” on suspects, as many officers standing behind the President cheered and clapped.
“I have nothing to add to this,” a White House official said Monday when asked about the speech and the criticism Trump received, declining to go on the record.
“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. You just see them thrown in — rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,'” Trump said to applause, referring to officers shielding prisoners’ heads with their hands. “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?'”
The term paddy wagon dates back to the 1900s, when Irish Americans were arrested in large numbers and carted away in the back of vans. The vans came to be known as paddy wagons.
In response, a series of police departments from New York, Massachusetts, Florida and beyond distanced themselves from Trump’s comments, arguing that they did not represent their values or guidelines.
The Suffolk County Police Department said in a statement, “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough(ing)’ up prisoners.”
“The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously,” the department said.
A tweet by Ben Tobias, spokesman for the Gainesville, Florida, police department, responding to Trump went viral.
“I’m a cop. I do not agree with or condone @POTUS remarks today on police brutality,” he wrote. “Those that applauded and cheered should be ashamed.”
In New York, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement that to “suggest that police officers apply any standard in the use of force other than what is reasonable and necessary is irresponsible, unprofessional and sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public.”
And Philadelphia’s former police commissioner Charles Ramsey condemned Trump’s comments on CNN’s “New Day” Monday.
“I was very concerned when I first heard those remarks because I believe it reinforces a very negative stereotype of police that we’ve been trying to overcome. That is, that police use excessive force on a regular basis, we violate people’s constitutional rights,” Ramsey said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will brief reporters on camera at 3:45 p.m. ET where she is expected to be asked about the response.
The Justice Department did not respond to CNN’s questions about the matter.
Some officers defended Trump in the face of criticism.
Detective Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, a union representing Cleveland’s rank-and-file police officers, told CNN there is “unwavering” support for Trump from law enforcement agencies across the country.
“Not surprisingly, (Trump’s) comments have been completely taken out of context by the racially exclusive and divisive profiteers seeking to call into question his support of all law abiding citizens and the law enforcement that live and work among them,” he said.
And Harry Houck, a retired New York Police Department detective, said on “New Day” that officers interpreted the comments “as a joke.”
“I don’t think any police officer out there in the right frame of mind would take that as a way of condoning that kind of activity,” Houck said. “I don’t think it’s really that big of a deal. I think it was just playing to the police officers, trying to get a laugh.”