President Donald Trump on Friday encouraged police officers to be rough with suspects they are placing in custody, an apparent joke Baltimore officials criticized as inappropriate in light of police reform efforts here and elsewhere.
Trump was speaking to officers in Suffolk County, New York, to highlight his administration's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration and the street gang known as MS-13. But he took a moment to criticize police officers who he thinks treat suspects too gingerly.
"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, eliciting laughter from officers. "Like when you guys 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, okay?'"
A spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh characterized Trump's comments as insensitive. City officials are struggling to stunt a spike in homicides that began soon after Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury he suffered after being placed without a seat belt in the back of a police van in April 2015. His death spawned riots and looting.
"Police misconduct or acts of brutality is not a joking matter," Pugh spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "We are working diligently in Baltimore to build relationships of trust and respect between our police officers and the community."
Billy Murphy, an attorney speaking on behalf of Gray's family, said Trump "should be condemned" for the statements.
“For a president of the United States to encourage the police with a wink and a nod to be violent to citizens ... shows that the president is not in any way committed to justice for all people,” he said.
Supporters of police and of Trump emphasized that his statements were a joke. The group Blue Lives Matter said the reaction was overblown.
"Do these people actually realize that this was a joke and not a policy change?" the group wrote on its website. "It seems not."
The president's comments come as Baltimore's Police Department works to carry out sweeping reforms laid out under a consent decree with Trump's Department of Justice. A federal judge approved the agreement in April, requiring city police to limit how and when they can engage suspects, to better train officers on how to interact with residents, and to enhance civilian oversight.
At the same time, the department is dealing with a historic surge in violence. Baltimore marked its 200th homicide of the year Wednesday, on pace to set a historic high for homicides per capita for a third consecutive year.
City police officials could not be reached for comment, nor could Gene Ryan, president of the city police union. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Suffolk County Police Department issued a statement after Trump's remarks. It said the department "has strict rules & procedures relating to the handling of prisoners. Violations of those rules are treated extremely seriously. As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners."
Eric Kowalczyk, who served as the Baltimore Police Department's spokesman during the unrest that followed Gray's death, called the president's comments "very disturbing" and said they only further damage tenuous relationships between police departments and minority communities across the country.
"Sometimes appropriate force is necessary," Kowalczyk, who now works as a communications consultant, wrote on Twitter. "This disgusting call for violence is exactly why so many communities of color don't trust police!"
Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund referenced Gray's death in denouncing Trump's statements. The legal defense fund said Trump's "mocking of the treatment of arrestees as they are escorted into a police vehicle is particularly reprehensible in light of the police in-custody death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore."
The ACLU said the country "is weary of the type of policing that Trump espouses," linking it to the deaths of Gray and New York man Eric Garner and saying it "only makes it harder for police to investigate and solve crime."
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said city residents should be "outraged" by the president's comments.
"It's an unfitting comment for a president of the United States, but it's a fitting comment for this president who is unfit to be president," Scott said.
Trump's comments most heavily touched on efforts to battle MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha. The gang is believed to have originated in immigrant communities in Los Angeles in the 1980s and then took root in Central America when its leaders were deported.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has instructed the Justice Department's law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors to prioritize the prosecution of MS-13 members, as directed by an executive order Trump signed in February.
Trump's visit to his home state of New York came as Sessions was in El Salvador to increase international cooperation against the gang. But the president did not mention Sessions in his remarks.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater and the Associated Press contributed to this article.