Of all the irresponsible things that President Donald Trump has said, perhaps nothing threatens to do greater damage than his remarks encouraging police to use excessive force. That was demonstrated by the swift public condemnations of his comments from police officials, who understand better than anyone that public safety is not well-served if police are seen to be above the law and distrusted.

“Please don’t be too nice” was Trump’s admonition, to a gathering last week of law enforcement officials, about arresting and transporting suspects. “When you guys,” he said, “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?” Even more jarring was the spectacle of uniformed officers cheering and applauding. Do they need a reminder of Freddie Gray and how he died from a spinal injury after transport in a Baltimore police van?

It was heartening, though, to see police officials from across the country distance themselves from, with many firmly denouncing, Trump’s comments giving a seeming wink and nod to police brutality. New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said unreasonable or unnecessary use of force “erodes trust at a time when we need support from our local communities the most.”

Unfortunately and to its discredit, the national union representing police rank and file attempted to give Trump a pass. “Off the cuff comments ... are sometimes taken all too literally by the media and professional police critics,” said a statement from the National Fraternal Order of Police. This cavalier attitude disserves the union’s members, most of whom conscientiously follow the law while performing their dangerous duty.

Given that the Justice Department has signaled its lack of interest in bringing needed reform to troubled police departments, in the name of law and order, it is hard not to be concerned by the president’s comments. Trump’s paean to gratuitous use of force sends the wrong message to police and to the communities they serve.