WASHINGTON - Sen. Pat Toomey waded into the roiling debate over law enforcement Tuesday, defending most officers as honorable and dedicated, and worrying that "scapegoating" mobs were clamoring to punish police whether or not they are found guilty of wrongdoing.

In a 15-minute speech on the Senate floor, the Pennsylvania Republican acknowledged that there were "real and horrible" cases of misconduct and that "unlawful" police activity could not be tolerated.

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."

Unrelated to any bill or debate on the floor, the speech marked a defense of police in a way rarely heard from public officials in recent weeks.

The Baltimore riots, Toomey said, sent a message to police that if they are accused of wrongdoing, "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."

Toomey said he did not know whether the officers accused of abusing Freddie Gray - who died in Baltimore police custody - were innocent or guilty. That, he said, is up to the legal system. But he worried that accusations of misconduct overshadow the officers who were serving honorably.

"The overwhelming majority of police are honest men and women," he said. "They have very high ethical standards. They don't have a racist bone in their body."

Toomey faces reelection next year in what political observers say could be a race that draws national interest. When he won his seat in 2010, the Allentown-area businessman was endorsed by several police unions.

Last year, he teamed with police groups to sink President Obama's nomination of lawyer Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Police unions had opposed Adegbile because of his work with a group that helped convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal on his death-penalty appeals.

In his speech, Toomey said a conversation on "bad police practices" was appropriate, but he criticized what he saw as a rush to judgment. He cited Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo., officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. No charges were brought, but Wilson left the force and moved from the area.

Toomey said he hoped the next demonstration about police conduct was to thank them for their work and dedication. "That's a demonstration," he said, "I'll be honored to join."

@JonathanTamari