President Trump on Friday called for police and immigration officials to be "rough" with suspected gang members in order to rid the country of "animals" he said are terrorizing communities.
"Please don't be too nice," Trump said to the applause of police recruits at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, a heavily Latino suburb of New York. "Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know the way you put their hand so they don't hit their head and they've just killed somebody … you can take that hand away.''
He implied that he was satisfied with rough handling of suspects by the police. "When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough," he said.
Scoffing at calls for what he describes as political correctness, Trump also renewed his pledges to build a wall along the Mexican border. He accused the Obama administration of admitting criminals into the United States.
"The previous administration enacted an open-door policy to illegal immigrants from Central America,'' he said. "As a result MS-13 surged into the country and scoured, just absolutely destroyed, so much in front of it."
He referred to Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a primarily Salvadoran gang that started in Los Angeles in the 1980s and has spread into other communities. The gang is blamed for 17 killings on New York's Long Island since the beginning of last year.
"Few communities have suffered worse at the hand of these MS-13 thugs than the people of Long Island,'' Trump told the recruits. "They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They are animals."
In often graphic detail, Trump spoke of the gangs' cruelty to victims: "They like to knife them and cut them and watch them die slowly."
The president's comments come on the heels of a speech he gave earlier in the week in Youngstown, Ohio, in which he also appeared to be endorsing extrajudicial violence by law enforcement.
Although the American public may be inured by now to Trump's unconventional approach, his speech on Long Island drew strong reactions.
"It's clear that the way he views things is simple: If you're a person of color, then police can beat you, slam you to the ground, not have any respect for your rights as a human," said Jeff Robinson, a deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's outrageous. … If you're a person of color in this country, there's every reason to fear for your life, when you hear these comments from a president," Robinson added.
In Los Angeles, one of the civilian commissioners who oversees the police department was quick to note that Trump's remarks stood in stark contrast to the philosophy and rules guiding the LAPD.
"What the president recommended would be out of policy in the Los Angeles Police Department," Steve Soboroff said. "It's not what policing is about today,"
Soboroff stressed that he believed police officers in Los Angeles would act appropriately while making arrests regardless of what the president said.
"I have faith that any one of our officers would not take their hand off someone and bang their head into a car because that's what the president of the United States recommended," Soboroff said.
Earlier Thursday, hundreds of demonstrators protested outside the community college located in Brentwood, a suburb of 60,000 people, two-thirds of them Latino. The protesters complained that Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and tactics have terrorized the community nearly as much as the gangs.
"Trump is preparing for a massive deportation, and he is justifying this by using our Hispanic community in Brentwood as an excuse to help us against MS-13,'' said Javier Guzman, a 50-year-old activist who was among the protesters.
Some older, more settled Latino immigrants, however, were heartened by Trump's campaign against the gangs.
"Everybody is afraid of the gangs, the murders and the killings. Trump will make us feel safer. He is only going after the illegal immigrants and criminals,'' said Reynaldo Caiaffa, 65, a businessman who was drinking coffee at a Colombian bakery in Brentwood earlier this week.
Brentwood has been terrorized by a string of killings of teens and young adults. Two girls, ages 15 and 16, were killed with machetes last September near an elementary school. Four young men were lured into a park and killed in adjoining Central Islip in April.
The MS-13 gang has recruited from the ranks of young immigrant teenagers from Central America, many of whom were sent to live with relatives in the U.S. because it had become too dangerous for them in their home countries.
These unaccompanied minors make up most of the people arrested for gang violence, as well as the majority of the victims. Few victims have been non-Latino.
Elizabeth Alvarado, 49, a Brentwood woman whose 15-year-old daughter, Nisa Mickens, was killed with a machete last year, said that many of the unaccompanied minors allowed into the United States joined gangs because of lack of supervision.
"If they are following the law and on the path to becoming U.S. citizens, it is OK, but many of the children were not monitored," said Alvarado.
The ACLU said said that nine teenagers had been detained on Long Island for wearing T-shirts or caps mistaken for gang colors — in particular the logo of the Chicago Bulls, which uses horns that resemble MS-13 symbols.
"These practices are forcing children to fear both the gang and the government," said New York Civil Liberties Union Suffolk County director Irma Solis in a statement. "We've heard from children who are afraid to go to school or go outside their homes because they're scared they will be picked up by ICE and separated from their loved ones — and all because someone may have misunderstood a T-shirt."
Other lawyers said that some teens had been detained for minor offenses, such as some boys accused of trespassing when they played basketball on school property after hours.
In the previous six weeks,1,400 immigrants in the country illegally had been detained by ICE, according to Trump.
Demick reported from Brentwood and Lee from Los Angeles. Staff Writer Kate Mather in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
4:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Steve Soboroff in Los Angeles.
2:55 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Jeff Robinson, Javier Guzman and Reynaldo Caiaffa.