July 28 started like any other day for Gainesville Police Officer Ben Tobias — until he saw a video of the president’s speech to a group of fellow law enforcement officers.
“I’m a cop. I do not agree with or condone @POTUS remarks today on police brutality. Those that applauded and cheered should be ashamed,” wrote Tobias, the spokesperson for GPD, on his personal Twitter account.
It was 4:26 p.m. when he posted it. By midnight, it had reached 656,946 people.
“I never envisioned a time where I would be issuing remarks to the president of the United States against something that they said,” Tobias said. “I have the highest respect for that office, no matter who holds that office.”
President Donald Trump spoke to police in Long Island, New York, on his administration’s fight against MS-13, an internationally-known gang accused of several murders in Long Island. When speaking about arresting gang members and illegal immigrants, Trump said, “Please don’t be too nice.”
Trump told the officers that during arrests, when they place suspects into the back of their patrol cars, they shouldn’t rest their hand on the arrestees’ heads to keep them from slamming into the vehicle. “You can take the hand away, OK?” Trump said to laughter and applause from some of the officers in the audience.
Tobias said after five years of working in the communications field and serving as GPD’s spokesperson, he understands that context is key. He said that although the president was speaking about MS-13 and serious criminals, there’s no dignity in roughing up prisoners after they’ve already been handcuffed and detained.
“Once that person is handcuffed, no matter what they did, they are still a human being,” Tobias said. “That’s when the public looks to us to be the most professional.”
Since July 28, Tobias’ words were retweeted more than 109,000 times and liked more than 332,000 times. In addition to appearing on CNN, his tweet was featured in The New York Times.
Hours after Tobias’ personal tweet, GPD Chief Tony Jones gave Tobias permission to draft GPD’s official response to the president’s words. Since late Friday night, the agency’s Facebook post has reached more than 1 million people, and its tweet has reached nearly 7 million.
For some in the Gainesville community, GPD’s exposure to the rest of the nation was a triumph.
As a person of color, Gainesville resident Eddie Lee Edwards said Trump’s words pained him.
“It just cut against what I think should be the message of anyone in government,” Edwards, 39, said. “Hearing that message it was like, ‘Great, now we have more fuel to an already tense situation about issues of police-citizen interaction.’”
Edwards, who’s lived in Gainesville since 1999, said over the years, he’s seen GPD grow to be one of the best police agencies he’s ever known.
Now a second-year law student at the Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando, Edwards hopes to pass the Florida bar and practice criminal law in Gainesville after he graduates.
He said he feels safe with GPD, an agency he considers to be both professional and community oriented.
“The more positive press that GPD gets out, the better,” Edwards said. “Our institutions need to be speaking up for what’s right.”
But some residents felt as though GPD misconstrued Trump’s words and made a political move to get positive press.
Daniel Weldon, a chairman of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom organization, said he thinks GPD was in the wrong.
“They don’t have to experience the level of crime that MS-13 commits,” said the 20-year-old UF political science junior. “I think it was an extreme political move in a very liberal city knowing that it would hit very well to get the notion that Trump was pushing for police brutality.”
Mayor Lauren Poe said he felt GPD’s reaction had nothing to do with politics, but more about safety and mutual respect that should exist between citizens and their police force.
“Our police department cannot serve and protect our citizens if our citizens are afraid of them,” Poe said. “It is so critical today more than ever that police departments build positive relationships with their community.”
Tobias said at the end of the day, police exist to serve the American people, and, to do that, they must earn the people’s trust. He said his and GPD’s statements were to give what he knows the Gainesville community expects of its police force.
“I wanted to remind our community, ‘Hey, Gainesville folks, this is who we are,’” Tobias said. “‘This is is what we’re going to do, this is what we’re not going to do.’”