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Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed police to conduct themselves "in a lawful way" and promised to prosecute officers who violate use of force laws while speaking at a conference Tuesday.
Sessions' remarks come as President Donald Trump faces continued criticism for encouraging officers to treat suspected criminalsmore roughly.
“Community-based policing was a big part of reducing crime…in America, we can’t back off that now,” Sessions told attendees of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives’ (NOBLE) annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia.
“We need to get even better at it and more careful at it — making sure we’re doing it in a lawful way,” he added.
At an event last Friday meant to highlight the wave of MS-13 gang violence on Long Island, New York, Trump seemed to urge officers to get physical when arresting suspected gang members.
"When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough," Trump said. "I said, 'Please don't be too nice.'"
Trump’s comments received swift condemnation from top law enforcement officials across the country, including James O'Neill, the police commissioner of the New York Police Department and NOBLE, the group Sessions addressed, which represents more than 3,000 primarily black law enforcement officers across the country.
In an agency-wide email sent Saturday and reported Tuesday, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Director Chuck Rosenberg, a holdover from the Obama administration, said Trump’s comments “condoned police misconduct.”
"I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong," he said in the email, which was obtained by NBC News.
In a statement Monday, NOBLE President Perry Tarrant said, "We must always be vigilant in ensuring that human rights of those in custody and/or suspected of crimes are protected."
The White House has defended Trump's remarks as an attempt at humor.
"I think you guys are jumping and trying to make something out of nothing... Wasn't a directive, it was a joke,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a press briefing Tuesday.
In his Tuesday remarks to Noble, Sessions appeared to attempt to blunt Trump’s comments by encouraging law enforcement officers to continue “proven constitutional techniques and procedures” when interacting with suspects and the community.
Sessions told Tarrant during his speech that he would have a sideline conversation with the organization about specific use of force concerns, but did not address those concerns in his speech.
He also offered assurances that the Department of Justice would prosecute officers who flout the law.
“Just as I am committed to defending law enforcement who lawfully have to use deadly force to defend themselves while engaged in their work, I will also … hold any officer responsible who violates the law,” Sessions said.