New York Times
By REBECCA R. RUIZ and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
August 01, 2017
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday steered clear of the growing concerns among law enforcement officials — including the Justice Department’s top narcotics investigator — over President Trump’s admonishments to the police last week to not be “too nice” in handling crime suspects.
In a speech in Atlanta, Mr. Sessions pledged both to protect police rights and to discipline individual officers who may abuse their authority. But he did not directly address Mr. Trump’s comments, made in front of a tableau of Suffolk County, N.Y., officers last Friday, that critics said came too close to encouraging excessive force by the police.
“Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head,” Mr. Trump said then, putting his own hand above his head for emphasis. “You can take the hand away, O.K.?”
Police officials across the nation were swift in repudiating Mr. Trump’s remarks, which a White House spokeswoman this week described as “a joke” but many in law enforcement took seriously.
On Tuesday, in front of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Mr. Sessions issued a temperate statement of support both for the police and the rule of law.
“Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who use deadly force while lawfully engaged in their work, I will also hold any officer responsible for breaking the law,” Mr. Sessions said.
In Washington, in a memo that surfaced on Tuesday, the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration denounced the president’s words as having “condoned police misconduct.”
Chuck Rosenberg, the acting administrator of the D.E.A., directed agency personnel in an email on Saturday to disregard the president’s guidance and to report any misbehavior.
“We must earn and keep the public trust and continue to hold ourselves to the very highest standards,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote in the internal memo, which was obtained by The New York Times. “Ours is an honorable profession and, so, we will always act honorably.”
It was among the most forceful rejections — if far from singular — of Mr. Trump’s remarks on Long Island.
Civil rights activists are closely watching the use of force by the police during the Trump administration. Though most cases occur on the local level, the Justice Department’s civil rights division has the authority to investigate cases of excessive force.
Mr. Sessions has criticized investigations of systemic police abuses and the use of so-called consent decrees, which require specific reforms for police departments and were put in place in more than a dozen jurisdictions by the Obama administration.
Within the first six months of the Trump administration, the Justice Department has closed at least two investigations into possible federal criminal civil rights violations by the police: one related to the 2016 shooting death of a black man in Baton Rouge, La., and the other into the 2014 shooting death of a mentally ill man in Albuquerque. The bar for charging police officers with federal civil rights violations is extremely high, and prosecutions are rare.
The police are a key constituency for the Trump administration, which has highlighted its law-and-order agenda. Some law enforcement officers have cast Mr. Trump’s comments as having been misinterpreted.
“The president’s off-the-cuff comments on policing are sometimes taken all too literally by the media and professional police critics,” said Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “The president knows, just as every cop out there knows, that our society does not, and should not, tolerate the mistreatment or prejudgment of any individual at any point in the criminal justice process.”
With his email, Mr. Rosenberg may have made himself a target for a president who has forced out a number of officials who have disagreed with him. Even officials who agree with Mr. Trump are vulnerable to his ire; Mr. Sessions has been criticized by the president as “very weak” and “beleaguered” even as the attorney general pushes ahead on the administration’s policies on immigration and violent crime.
Mr. Rosenberg, a longtime career Justice Department prosecutor, was appointed to head the D.E.A. during the Obama administration and has strong ties to two people about whom Mr. Trump has expressed deep distrust: the former F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, whom Mr. Trump fired in May; and the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in last year’s election, Robert S. Mueller III.
Mr. Sessions has maintained that he does not plan to change the Justice Department’s approach to disciplining individual officers who may act unlawfully.
“All it takes is one bad officer,” he said Tuesday, “to destroy the reputations of so many who work day in and day out to build relationships in these communities and serve with honor and distinction.”
The Justice Department has declined to comment specifically on Mr. Trump’s remarks. The White House on Tuesday dismissed the president’s words to the police as insignificant.
“He was simply making a comment, making a joke, and it was nothing more than that,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. “It wasn’t a directive, it was a joke. There’s a very big difference.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 2, 2017, on Page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Sessions Steers Clear of Trump’s ‘Joke’ on the Use of Force by the Police.
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