ATLANTA — The Trump administration's tough talk on crime and the treatment of suspects has left black police officers worried that efforts to repair the fraught relationship between police and minority communities could be derailed.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday addressed a major black law enforcement group, just days after President Donald Trump said police shouldn't be "nice" to suspects by shielding their heads as they are lowered, handcuffed, into police cars. The comment, now described by the White House as a joke, angered some cops who said it only served to dial back progress they'd made with the people they serve.
In addition, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration said Saturday in an email to employees that Trump's comments "condoned police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement." DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg said he thought it important to emphasize the drug agency's operating principles, which include rule of law, respect and compassion and integrity.
Sessions did not directly address the president's comments in his remarks Tuesday, but said police officers need the support of the community as they do a dangerous job.
"You deserve the support and respect of every American, and I'm here today on behalf of President Trump and the Department of Justice to say, 'Thank you.' I am proud to stand with you. The Department of Justice is proud to stand with you," Sessions said, drawing applause from the crowd. "We have your back. We are in this together."
Seattle Assistant Police Chief Perry Tarrant, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, told reporters Sessions also spoke privately with the organization's leadership. Sessions didn't apologize for the president's comment and said he believes it was made in jest, but said he understands the effect such comments can have and underscored the Department of Justice's commitment to protecting everyone's civil rights, Tarrant said.
When asked if he believes Trump was joking, Tarrant said, "Whether intentional or unintentional, it was heard around the country by the folks, by the very communities that we're trying to build relationships with and I believe it had an impact."
Other conference attendees approached by The Associated Press declined to discuss Trump's comments or Sessions' address.
Black police officers talk of straddling two worlds: the communities where they live, and the police departments where they work. They take seriously their oath to uphold the law and to go after criminals, but they also worry about their own friends, relatives and neighbors who fear the police.
"We live in some of the same communities that are affected by this disparate treatment. We go to church in those neighborhoods. We go to the barbershops. Certain things people don't realize: It's really hard being black and being a police officer when these things happen," said Clarence E. Cox III, former chief of Clayton County Schools in Georgia and incoming president of NOBLE.
Sessions has questioned the federal civil rights investigations that marked the Obama administration's efforts to overhaul troubled police departments, often after high-profile deadly police encounters with black men inflamed tensions and reignited debates over police-community relations.
"We cannot let the politicians — and sometimes they do — run down the police in communities that are suffering only to see crimes spike in those communities," Sessions said. "In the very neighborhoods that need proactive, community-based policing the most, we don't need to be telling police not to do their job in those communities."
Sessions has said aggressive federal intervention in local law enforcement can malign entire agencies and make officers less effective on the streets, but he has promised to prosecute individual officers who break the law.
Sessions has been traveling the country touting his tough-on-crime agenda. He believes rising violence and the nation's opioid epidemic require a return to tougher tactics, vowing to make fighting ordinary street crime a top priority for a Justice Department.
Tarrant has also expressed concern about Sessions' pledge to dial back civil rights investigations. While some effective interim steps can help address bad departments, he said, "at the end of the day if you have systemic issues in any organization, the Department of Justice has an obligation to intervene."
Trump's remarks came last Friday before law enforcement officers in Suffolk County, New York, during a visit to highlight his administration's efforts to crack down on a street gang known as MS-13.
He spoke dismissively of the practice of shielding the heads of handcuffed suspects as they are placed in patrol cars.
"Don't be too nice," Trump said. "I said, 'You could take the hand away, OK,'" he said.
His remarks were later denounced by the Suffolk County Police Department, which issued a statement saying it has strict rules and procedures about how prisoners should be handled and "we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners."