Former President Donald J. Trump has long spoken admiringly of police officers who use aggressive force on the job. For years, he has noted his unwavering support for local law enforcement, presenting himself as a “law and order” candidate who would help police combat violent crime.
But now, as Trump once again campaigns for the White House, he has added a new promise to his speeches along the way: to “indemnify” police officers and protect them from the financial consequences of lawsuits accusing them of misconduct.
“We are going to compensate them so that they do not lose their wife, their family, their pension and their job,” he said during a speech this month in New York.
Legal experts say Trump's proposal — which he first raised in an interview in October and has been floated five times this month — would have little effect and would largely impose the status quo. Police officers in most jurisdictions are already protected from financial liability for potential wrongdoing. They also benefit from a legal doctrine that can protect officers accused of misconduct from lawsuits for damages.
Since entering politics, Trump has often pledged loyalty to police as a way to attack Democrats, accusing them of being more concerned about progressive ideas than public safety. For decades, he has rejected calls for police reform, arguing that such changes prevent officers from using aggressive crime-fighting tactics.
His promise to compensate officers also reveals a contradiction at the heart of his current campaign. Even as he proclaims his strong support for rank-and-file officers, he has raged against the federal and state law enforcement officials who have led the four criminal cases against him, resulting in 91 felony charges.
Two Capitol Police officers who were injured during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot sued him, accusing him of inciting violence, and the Colorado Supreme Court ruled this week that there was enough evidence that he participated in the insurrection to disqualify him. to occupy the position. again.
Those realities haven't stopped Trump from courting police, meeting with law enforcement groups along the way and posing with officers who are part of his motorcade. He and his assistants often post photos and videos of the interactions on social media.
During a speech Sunday in Nevada, he proudly told the crowd that he “shake hands with a lot of police officers” before arriving. Later, when he promised to compensate the officers, he called out to them: “All those cops who were shaking my hand over there, you better be listening.”
Trump frequently criticizes Democrats for being too critical of law enforcement. He conjures up images of big cities as lawless and unsafe, blaming liberal politicians whose calls for police reform, he says, have deterred officers from carrying out their duties. The police, he has argued in recent speeches, are being “destroyed by the radical left.”
“They're afraid to do anything,” Trump said recently. “They are forced to avoid any conflict, they are forced to let a lot of bad people do what they want, because they risk losing their pension, losing their house, losing their families.”
But legal scholars who have studied the issue say police officers are already largely protected from personal financial consequences when it comes to lawsuits against them.
“The idea that officers need compensation is frankly absurd,” said Alexander A. Reinert, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. “Because they already have it.”
Indemnification, in a legal context, refers to a process by which one party agrees to cover the liability of the other party, essentially agreeing to pay for any wrongdoing committed by the second party.
In the case of policing, many state and local governments have laws agreeing to indemnify police officers for lawsuits. In other cases, police unions obtain severance agreements as part of their negotiations.
Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study in 2014 that looked at lawsuits against police in 81 jurisdictions over six years. She found that 99.98 percent of the money paid to plaintiffs in these cases came from local governments or their insurance companies, not from the officials themselves.
“Agents virtually never pay anything in settlements or judgments made against them,” Schwartz said in an interview.
Trump, as is often the case, has been vague about the details of his plan, making it difficult to know whether such a move would be feasible, although experts say enacting it could require congressional legislation rather than an executive order.
In Nevada on Sunday, Trump said the government would pay the police “for their costs, for their lawyers.” Earlier this year, he said he would protect states and cities from being sued, a comment that suggested a broad expansion of existing legal protections for police officers accused of violating constitutional rights.
Under a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, someone who accuses police of using excessive force or discriminating against them must not only prove that misconduct occurred, but generally must also be able to cite a very similar prior case in which The agents were held responsible.
Critics say qualified immunity offers blanket protections that prevent officers from being held accountable. Law enforcement groups say these protections are necessary to prevent officers from becoming so concerned about personal liability that they cannot do their jobs.
Trump has long expressed strong support for qualified immunity for police officers, particularly during his 2020 re-election bid, when the nation was gripped by protests following the killing of George Floyd. Several major police unions endorsed him during that campaign.
In 1989, long before he entered the political arena, Trump bought advertising in New York, claiming that concerns over civil liberties had hampered police and led to a rise in crime.
In a newspaper ad, he wrote about being young and seeing “two young thugs” harass a waitress in a restaurant. “Two police officers ran in, picked up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them to never cause trouble again,” she wrote.
In 2017, when Trump was president, he urged police not to be “too nice” and told them not to protect the heads of people suspected of being gang members when putting them in patrol cars. Law enforcement officials across the country criticized those comments.
In 2020, as protests rocked Minneapolis, Trump called protesters “thugs” on social media and wrote, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The post was criticized for encouraging violence against protesters. Trump later said he wanted to convey that looting usually led to violence, an interpretation that ignored the phrase's racist history.
As protests spread across the country, he threatened to send the military to cities and states if he believed their leaders were not maintaining order.
This year, at a gathering of Republicans in California, Trump said he thought shoplifters should be shot as they left stores. “If you rob a store, you can expect to be shot when you leave that store,” he said, to which the crowd responded with thunderous applause.
Then, after calling for extrajudicial killings of petty criminals, Trump returned to a familiar message.
“You know, our law enforcement is excellent,” he said. “But they're not allowed to do anything.”
kitty bennett contributed to the research.
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