The Kentucky Republican also said police agencies deserve respect.
McConnell, who is seeking a seventh term in the November election, spoke about protests after receiving an endorsement from the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police.
Mass demonstrations have been sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans, the vast majority of which have resisted arrest and refused to obey officers.
In Kentucky, protests have continued for months over the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was shot multiple times when officers entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant, after her boyfriend fired his gun at them.
McConnell also pointed to ongoing demonstrations in Portland, Oregon.
McConnell says he supports the rights of people to demonstrate peacefully while condemning riots. On Tuesday he criticized the leaders of big cities — all of which are Democratic strongholds — for their handling of the unrest.
“What you’ve seen, I think, in some of these major cities is a reluctance on the part of elected officials to enforce the law because of the apparent sympathy with at least some of those protesting,” McConnell said. “I think Kentuckians and Americans are intelligent enough to draw a distinction between peaceful protesting — constitutionally protected activity — and rioting and looting and tearing down statues.”
McConnell’s campaign has aired TV ads showing footage of protests turning destructive while the senator denounces the actions. The campaign of McConnell’s Democratic challenger, retired Marine combat pilot Amy McGrath, on Tuesday accused McConnell of trying to “stoke division and fear.”
“Nobody understands the importance of security and safety more than a combat veteran and Marine,” McGrath campaign manager Dan Kanninen said in response to the state FOP endorsement of McConnell. “It is fundamental to the job they do. Everybody wants safe communities. Everybody wants safe streets. We can absolutely have them and still protect the rights of all Kentuckians.”
McConnell said Tuesday that police have a tough job trying to separate peaceful protesters from those infiltrating demonstrations with the intent to spark violence.
“You have situations where peaceful demonstrators, doing exactly what they’re entitled to do, end up being taken advantage of … by those who want to engage in rioting and looting,” he said.
Restoring “tranquility and order” is the goal, McConnell said, but that means arresting people who violate the law and letting peaceful protests continue.
Police deserve respect, he said, for “doing a tough job that most of us wouldn’t have the courage to take up,” but acknowledged that “like in any organization, you’re going to have a few bad apples.”
McConnell touted a stalled Senate Republican policing bill. It would create a national database of police use-of-force incidents, restrict police chokeholds and set up new training procedures and commissions to study race and law enforcement.
The bill also would continue “qualified immunity,” which shields officials, including police, from lawsuits for money as a result for things they do in the course of their job. Eliminating the protection would make it difficult for police agencies to recruit new officers, McConnell said.
“Because it seems to me you’ve got two choices,” he said. “You either don’t take the job in the first place or if you’re afraid you’re going to be sued because you’re trying to break up a fight or something, you don’t get out of the car at all, in which case the fight continues.”
Adapted from reporting by Associated Press.