Twitter has furiously slammed the White House after press secretary Sarah Sanders said US President Donald Trump was probably "making a joke" last week when he appeared to encourage rougher police treatment of suspects when making arrests. During a speech about cracking down on the criminal gang MS-13 at Suffolk County Community College in New York on Friday, Trump told an audience of law enforcement officers and crime victims' families to be tougher when apprehending suspected gang members

"When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in. Rough, I said. Please don't be too nice," Trump said. "Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know? The way you put their hand over. Like, don't hit their head, and they've just killed somebody? Don't hit their head? I said, 'You can take the hand away, OK?'"

"I have to tell you," he continued. "The laws are so horrendously stacked against us because, for years and years, they've been made to protect the criminal. Totally made to protect the criminal. Not the officers. You do something wrong, you're in more jeopardy than they are," Trump said.

Trump's comments drew laughter and applause from the crowd but were widely condemned by police chiefs and departments across the country over the weekend.

The local police department in Suffolk County said in a statement: "The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously. As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners. "

However, during the Monday press briefing, Sanders said: "I believe he was making a joke at the time."

Social media users immediately launched a barrage of fierce criticism against the White House for downplaying the president's "irresponsible" and "dangerous" remarks as just a joke.

"Police brutality is not a joke", CNN political commentator Keith Boykin tweeted.

One Twitter user wrote: "Trump's well-developed sense of puckish humour has, indeed, been a hallmark of his presidency."

"Even if it was a joke, it was inappropriate and showed poor judgement," another person said.

"Tone is set from the top. When POTUS says something, it matters. His words spark actions," one Twitter user warned.

President Donald Trump speaks at Suffolk Community College on July 28, 2017 in Brentwood, New York. Spencer Platt/Getty Images