WASHINGTON – Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) waded into the roiling debate over law enforcement Tuesday, defending most officers as honorable and dedicated and worrying that mobs are clamoring to punish police whether or not they are found guilty of wrongdoing.
"My concern specifically is over the growing scapegoating of police officers in America today," Toomey said in a 15-minute speech on the Senate floor.
He acknowledged that there are "real and horrible" cases of misconduct and that "unlawful" police activity "absolutely cannot be tolerated, not even one little bit."
But he added, "if you listen to many of the police critics that we hear from today, you'd think that there's some sort of epidemic of crimes perpetrated by the police and that … I assure you is not true."
Unprompted by any bill or debate on the floor, Toomey chose to speak out in defense of police in a way few public officials have in recent weeks.
The riots in Baltimore last week, Toomey said, brought the situation to a head and sent a message to police "that one day, should they find themselves accused of wrong doing, there might be a public mob that clamors for their conviction and threatens to burn down the city if the legal system finds them innocent … that is a sad state of affairs."
He asked what will happen if one or all of the officers is found innocent.
"Will we see Baltimore or maybe other cities erupt in flames once more?" Toomey asked. "That's already what seems to be forecast in some quarters."
Toomey quickly said he does not know if the officers accused of abusing Freddie Gray – the Baltimore man who died in police custody – are innocent or guilty. That, he said, is up to the legal system. But he worried that accusations of police misconduct are overshadowing the officers who serve honorably.
"Far from the epidemic of police misdeeds that some claim to be happening out there, I think just the opposite is true," Toomey said. "The overwhelming majority of police are honest men and women. They have very high ethical standards, they don't have a racist bone in their body."
While Toomey said a conversation on "bad police practices" is appropriate, he criticized what he sees as a rush to judgment. He cited Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo. officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, but was not charged with wrongdoing by either the local authorities or Department of Justice.
"He ended up having to leave his job on the police force … he ended up having to move out of his home and go somewhere else and he's only 28 years old," Toomey said. "The accused police officers in Baltimore have life stories too."
He said they may still be guilty – it's up to the legal system to decide that – "what I'm simply trying to point out is that these police officers have human faces, are human beings and these officers are going to go through hell whether they deserve to or not. Their lives will never be the same whether they are guilty or innocent."
Toomey was endorsed by several major unions when he won his Senate seat in 2010, and teamed with police groups last year to sink President Obama's nomination of Debo Adegbile to a key civil rights post. Police unions opposed Adegbile because of his work with a group that helped convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal on his death penalty appeals.
"The next time there's a demonstration about police conduct," Toomey concluded, "I hope it's a demonstration to thank the police for their dedication, their hard work and their courage. That's a demonstration I'll be honored to join."