Former President Donald J. Trump has long spoken admiringly of police officers who use aggressive force on the job. For years, he has pointed to his unwavering support for local law enforcement, presenting himself as a “law and order” candidate who would help the police tackle violent crime.
But now, as Mr. Trump campaigns again for the White House, he has added a new promise to his speeches on the trail: to “indemnify” police officers and protect them from the financial consequences of lawsuits accusing them of misconduct.
“We are going to indemnify them, so they don’t lose their wife, their family, their pension and their job,” he said during a speech this month in New York.
Legal experts say Mr. Trump’s proposal — which he first raised in an interview in October and has floated five times this month — would have little effect and would largely enforce the status quo. Police officers in most jurisdictions are already protected from being held financially responsible for potential wrongdoing. They also benefit from a legal doctrine that can shield officers accused of misconduct from lawsuits seeking damages.
Since entering politics, Mr. Trump has often pledged his allegiance to the police as a way to attack Democrats, accusing them of being more concerned about progressive ideas than public safety. For decades, he has batted down calls for police reform, arguing that such changes hinder officers from using aggressive crime-fighting tactics.
His promise to indemnify officers also reveals a contradiction at the heart of his current campaign. Even as he proclaims his steadfast support for rank-and-file officers, he has been raging against 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 riot on Jan. 6, 2021, have sued him, accusing him of inciting violence, and Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled this week that there was enough evidence that he engaged in insurrection to disqualify him from holding office again.
Those realities have not stopped Mr. Trump from courting the police, meeting with law enforcement groups on the trail and posing with officers who are part of his motorcade. He and his aides often post photos and videos of the interactions on social media.
During a speech on Sunday in Nevada, he proudly told the crowd that he “shook so many hands of policemen” before arriving. Later, when he promised to indemnify officers, he called them out: “All those policemen that were shaking my hand back there, you better be listening.”
Mr. Trump frequently criticizes Democrats as too critical of law enforcement. He conjures up images of big cities as lawless and unsafe, laying the blame on 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,” Mr. Trump said recently. “They’re forced to avoid any conflict, they’re forced to let a lot of bad people do what they want to do, because they’re under a threat of losing their pension, losing their house, losing their families.”
But legal scholars who have studied the issue say that police officers are already largely shielded from personal financial consequences when it comes to lawsuits brought against them.
“The idea that officers need indemnification 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 another party, essentially agreeing to pay for any wrongdoing by the second party.
In the case of policing, many state and local governments have laws in which they agree to indemnify police officers for lawsuits. In other cases, police unions obtain indemnification agreements as part of their bargaining.
Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study in 2014 looking at lawsuits against the 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 officers themselves.
“Officers virtually never pay anything in settlements or judgments entered against them,” Ms. Schwartz said in an interview.
Mr. Trump, as is often the case, has been vague about the specifics of his plan, making it difficult to know whether such a move would be feasible, though experts say that enacting it might require legislation from Congress rather than an executive order.
In Nevada on Sunday, Mr. 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 remark 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 the police of using excessive force or discriminating against them must not only show that misconduct occurred, but also generally be able to cite a closely similar previous case in which officers were held responsible.
Critics say that qualified immunity offers blanket protections that prevent officers from being held accountable. Policing groups say these protections are necessary to keep officers from being so worried about personal liability that they fail to do their jobs.
Mr. Trump has long expressed staunch support for qualified immunity for police officers, particularly during his 2020 re-election bid, when the nation was racked with protests after the murder of George Floyd. Several major police unions endorsed him during that campaign.
In 1989, well before he entered the political arena, Mr. Trump bought advertising in New York claiming that concern over civil liberties had hampered the police and led to a rise in crime.
In a newspaper ad, he wrote of being young and watching “two young bullies” harass a waitress in a diner. “Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again,” he wrote.
In 2017, when Mr. Trump was president, he urged the police not to be “too nice,” telling them not to protect the heads of people suspected of being gang members when putting them into squad cars. Law enforcement authorities across the country criticized those remarks.
In 2020, as protests rocked Minneapolis, Mr. Trump called the demonstrators “thugs” on social media and wrote, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The post was criticized for encouraging violence against protesters. Mr. Trump later said he meant to convey that looting generally led to violence, an interpretation that ignored the phrase’s racist history.
As the protests spread across the country, he threatened to send the military to cities and states if he believed their leaders were failing to maintain order.
This year, at a gathering of Republicans in California, Mr. Trump said he thought shoplifters should be shot on their way out of stores. “If you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store,” he said, to which the crowd responded with uproarious applause.
Then, after calling for the extrajudicial shootings of petty criminals, Mr. Trump returned to a familiar message.
“You know, our law enforcement is great,” he said. “But they’re not allowed to do anything.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.