Trumps Dangerous Attacks on Rule of Law

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Donald Trump continues to attack the rule of law through his continuing comments degrading the FBI, the Justice Department, and federal judges and by recklessly branding his political opponents as criminals. I wrote about this last August in the Seattle Times and it's still true today:

I couldn’t believe what I heard Friday from the president of the United States about the rule of law. Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked because of all his previous vulgar, disrespectful and downright harmful comments. Maybe that’s his intent, to over time lull the country into stunned silence, a dulled acceptance of his radical, authoritarian mindset.

But it’s a big deal when President Donald Trump attacks the rule of law, the principle that we are governed by laws, standards and broadly accepted norms, not the whims of an individual. These attacks reached an alarmingly dangerous new level when Trump said these words to police officers about the arrest of violent subjects:

“ … 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. 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, OK?”

That’s the president encouraging police officers to rough up people they have arrested. Telling police officers not to use their hands to guide an arrestee’s head into the back seat of a patrol car so it doesn’t bang against the door frame. The president was encouraging police misconduct. Shameful.

This on top of his previous attacks on federal judges, the director of the FBI, our intelligence services, the Department of Justice, and his own attorney general. Words matter. Trump’s constant barrage of verbal attacks matters. By his words and behavior, Trump is tearing down the rule of law, the fragile standards and mores built up over generations. The president’s scorn, his contempt, is very damaging. Yes, we have serious problems, especially when it comes to criminal justice, but, believe me, these problems will not be correctly addressed by destroying the rule of law.

Friday’s comments elevated the danger to a new level. Any elected official, but especially the president, who encourages illegal police violence should be roundly condemned. Trump was wrong, absolutely wrong.

The rule of law — and the peace of our communities — is only assured when people respect, understand, and welcome the police and the other elements of local government dedicated to keeping us safe. This doesn’t happen by chance or automatically; it takes intentional effort. It’s hard work building community trust.

We’ve experienced this here in Seattle. Since the Department of Justice issued their report in 2012 about use of force, biased policing and mismanagement of the police department, a lot of people have worked diligently to create sustainable reform — the elected leaders of the city, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, the Community Police Commission, City Attorney Peter Holmes and his colleagues, civil rights advocates, and, importantly, the women and men of the Seattle Police Department. Excellent progress has been made, as evidenced by the 10 compliance assessments completed by the federal monitor, Merrick Bobb.

Much more remains to be done to make certain the reforms take root and actually change the culture of the police department. For example, we have yet to tackle hiring and promotion standards; how best to structure an in-service leadership academy to prepare future leaders; and how to create a political climate that recognizes the importance of effective policing and civilian oversight, yet doesn’t lead to inappropriate interference — the kind we’ve come to expect from the president at the national level.

The rule of law is a revered treasure of our democracy. It’s clear by his words and actions that President Trump doesn’t share, doesn’t understand and doesn’t care about this fundamental value of America. Let’s stand up and defend the rule of law and condemn those who would tear it down, including the president of the United States.