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Will Trump's comments make cops' jobs 'much more difficult'?

By CARY ASHBY and ZOE GRESZLER • Aug 2, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Norwalk Police Chief Dave Light is shocked by the comments made by President Donald Trump in which he appeared to advocate rougher treatment of people in custody.

“What he said is going to make our life much more difficult — starting today,” Light said Tuesday. 

If there is even a hint or an appearance of Norwalk officers being rougher than they should be with a suspect, Light said he wouldn’t be surprised if those people accuse police of following Trump’s statements.

“That’s what we’ll be hearing,” the chief added. 

“Normally I’d say I’m appalled, but he (Trump) does or says something appalling on a daily basis,” Light said. “He does it every day — between what he tweets and what he says, he’s offending one class of people (or another).

On Friday during a speech about the street gang MS-13, Trump spoke dismissively of the police practice of shielding the heads of handcuffed suspects as they are being placed in patrol cars. 

Trump told the crowd of law enforcement officers in Suffolk County, Long Island: “Don’t be too nice.”

“We’d like to get them out a lot faster and when you see ... these thugs being thrown into the back of the paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”

“I said, ‘You could take the hand away, OK?’” Trump said, drawing applause from many in the audience, which included federal and law enforcement personnel from the New York-New Jersey area.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she believed Trump was making a joke when he spoke on Long Island.

But not all were amused.

Saugerties Police Chief Joe Sinagra, who has been in Washington since Friday for retraining at the FBI National Academy conference, said the president's comments were a topic of discussion. Sinagra said he was disheartened by Trump’s comments and found them damaging, especially when police are working on building trust among the general public.

“His comments are not supported by the law enforcement community,” he said. “I think it sends out a poor message to the community.”

Light said it’s tough enough being a police officer, given the recent media scrutiny of any actions that police take, without having the president adding fuel to the fire. In Norwalk, he said officers complete a “use of force” report in any incident in which they use a Taser, “lay hands on someone” and/or wrestle with someone.

“You have to bend over backwards to make sure everything is above board,” Light added. “The police are there to protect and serve. We’re not there to dole out justice; that’s for the courts to do.”

In Erie County, Sheriff Paul Sigsworth said his department will continue to follow the policies and procedures that govern deputies’ conduct, behavior and the use of force.

“Those are based on statutes and United States Supreme Court decisions,” he added.

New London Police Chief Mike Marko declined to comment on what Trump said.

In light of the president’s comments, Light said “I bet the Supreme Court justices are shaking their heads right now,” especially since they could be handling excessive force cases.

“We are six months into (Trump’s presidency) and I’m concerned where we’re going,” he added.

While Sinagra said he supported the president and thought Trump was making a joke, he said he makes sure his 41 sworn officers are trained in de-escalation techniques and crisis intervention training.

“Really, it was a boneheaded comment to make,” Sinagra said. “Why would you even joke around about this?”

Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum said he believed Trump’s comments were being blown out of proportion by the media and that the president was simply joking.

“I think that’s just the way he is and police are smart enough to take it as a tongue-in-cheek comment,” Van Blarcum said.

Van Blarcum said he didn't think Trump's comments would impact how law enforcement treats people in custody.

“We treat everybody the same, whether you’re a gang member or a banker,” the sheriff said.

Middletown Police Chief John Ewanciw, who began his first day Monday, said he hadn’t heard of the comments the president made while in Long Island.

But he said the department, like many agencies, has rules and standards for treating people in custody. Ewanciw said some officers have had people who've been arrested come back weeks later and thank them for treating them respectfully.

“We’re trying to build community relations,” Ewanciw said. “We can arrest people and still do our job and remain professional.”

Huron County Sheriff Todd Corbin stressed the emphasis of police being called to protect and serve.

“We’re here to serve this community. I think it would be absolutely wrong (to take advantage),” he said.

“There are some police officers (who) take the position and use their badges as an authoritarian position that I really don’t like. That takes (away) everything I stand for. That makes me, and I know other officers, angry. You want to be a positive role model. We’re all human beings,” Corbin added.

While not singling out Trump’s comments, the sheriff said “we don’t rough people up.”

“Our first obligation is to diffuse a situation. In any situation, I think (our) obligation is to resolve a problem. My last resort is to make an arrest,” Corbin said.

“My first instinct is to diffuse the situation. If we have to ‘rough it up,’ it’s because we’ve been forced into a situation where we have no other way of dealing with you. That is our only and last option. Never unnecessarily. The situation is only the amount of afford to affect an arrest and gain control of the situation.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Associated Press and The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y. (TNS) contributed to this story.

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