Friday, July 24, 2009

The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting Prof. Gates

[Updated 31 July see NOTE #3 at end] [Updated 27 July see NOTE #2 at end]
The photo shows Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. being arrested on July 16th at the home he was renting from Harvard University. President Barack Obama responded to a question about the arrest at his July 24th news conference, as follows:

"Well, I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don't know all the facts. What's been reported, though, is ... There was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far so good. ...

"They're reporting, the police are doing what they should. There's a call. They go investigate what happens.

"My understanding is at that point Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I'm sure there's some exchange of words but my understanding is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house. And at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

"Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry. Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that's just a fact." [Emphasis added]


I read the official Cambridge police report by Sgt. Crowley and Cambridge Police report by the second officer at the scene and various press reports and I have come to the same conclusion as the President.

The Cambridge police DID act STUPIDLY in ARRESTING a man who was not being physically abusive or a danger to anyone and was not a flight risk.

As the photo shows, at the time of the arrest, there were multiple police officers at the scene and there was no immediate danger to the public even if the suspect had turned out to be a burglar.

According to the police report linked above, Gates was initially uncooperative and did shout awful things at the policeman. When the police radio tapes come out, we will probably hear Prof. Gates being verbally abusive. Gates did exhibit what the police report terms "loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place" in a way that met the definition of "disorderly conduct".

However, the Cambridge Police should have responded by simply remaining with the suspect until an officer from the Harvard Police, already on the scene, had time to confirm the Harvard ID was valid. That should have and would have been the end of it.


A 40 year-old white woman, Lucia Whalen, noticed what she interpreted as "two black males with backpacks" and her suspicions were aroused "when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry." She called 911. [See NOTE #2 below. Recording of 911 call does not mention "black males" or "backpacks".]

There is no evidence this woman is a racist, or, in any case, no more racist than a "normal" person living in a neighborhood where burglaries have occurred in the past. (Indeed it turns out that Prof. Gates' house had recently been burglarized.) As Obama said, "there might be a burglary taking place. So far so good."

Officer Crowley heard the break-in in progress report on his police cruiser radio and responded. The woman who called 911, cellphone in her hand, met him in front of the house and told him what she had observed. Crowley approached the glass paned front door, saw a man fitting the suspect's description inside, and demanded he come out and speak to him because he was investigating a report of a break-in in progress at that house. There is absolutely no evidence Sgt. Crowley is racist, indeed he is an instructor in police classes that address the problem of racial profiling. At this point, Crowley was doing his job properly. So far so good.

Gates, a 60-year-old man who has undoubtedly been the victim of racial profiling in the past responded badly. His emotional reaction is understandable and perhaps justified in a moral sense.

He initially refused to cooperate, accusing the officer of being racist, and bewailing the status of "the black man in America". Officer Crowley entered the home. Gates threatened the officer, telling him he had friends in high places and that the officer had no idea who he was messing with. He also made a phone call to someone he thought could contact the police chief, saying he was being confronted by a racist police officer in his home.

As a matter of fact, Gates is an important man -friend to the President of the US and a distinguished professor at Harvard- which is all the more reason he should have cooperated! Unlike a poor black caught up in a police profiling, Gates was in no real danger of being railroaded into a phony conviction. Had he simply shown his photo IDs and waited for the officer to check them out, the incident could have ended well. Indeed, he and Sgt. Crowley might have had a friendly professional discussion about racial profiling and Crowley could have informed Gates of his work in the police department addressing that problem.

On the other hand, I can empathize with Gates (in an intellectual way since I have never been discriminated against in anything like the way blacks have). He was responding not just for himself, but for the entire black community that has been victimized by some racist policemen.

Eventually Gates handed his Harvard ID over to the officer. (Press reports say Gates claims to have handed over an additional photo ID but the linked police reports mention only the Harvard ID.) Crowley radioed the details in to the police department and requested they send out the Harvard University Police to verify the ID. Both Crowley and Gates moved outside the home. Officers from the Cambridge Police and the Harvard Police were on the scene, and a number of members of the public -including the neighbor who took the above photo- were milling about. Gates was still shouting but posed no physical danger to anyone. So far so good - had the officer stayed cool everything could have been OK.

Crowley should have and could have "left good enough alone", but he (understandably) took offense at being shouted at in front of other officers and members of the public. He warned Gates twice that he was becoming disorderly in public. Gates continued to vent his (also understandable) anger and Crowley showed him his handcuffs. When Gates did not calm down, he was handcuffed and arrested and transported to the police station.

BOTTOM LINE: We should and do apply a higher standard to the actions of a police officer than to a citizen - even a citizen who happens to be a friend of the President and a distinguished scholar. The police officer, in the presence of other officers, and in radio consultation with his superiors at the police department, should not have cuffed Gates. It WAS stupid for the Cambridge police to allow this incident to grow so far out of proportion. I believe Gates is due an official appology and (symbolic) restitution for his inconvenience of no more than $2000.

NOTE #1: President Obama has phoned both Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley and invited them "to have a beer" at the White House, and both have apparently accepted (though Gates does not drink beer :^). That would be a very nice conclusion to this incident - turn it into a "teachable moment"!

NOTE #2 [added 27 July]: The Cambridge Police have released the 911 tape and a radio exchange between Sgt. Crowley and dispatch. In the 911 call, the woman DOES NOT identify the race of the suspects but, when pressed, she says one may be hispanic. She DOES NOT mention backpacks but only that the suspects left luggage outside the house. This is in possible conflict with the police report I linked to that claims the 911 caller, who met Sgt. Crowley in front of the house, told him "she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of 17 Ware St". It is certainly possible she did mention race and backpacks to Crowley since she had more time to observe between the 911 call and when he showed up. However, her lawyer said this morning that she never mentioned race to the police, so we will never know. In the radio exchange between Crowley and dispatch, he does not mention the suspect's race either, but Crowley says Gates claims to be a resident of that house and that he is not being cooperative. Gates' voice is not heard on the tape released so far. I hope they release ALL the radio exchanges ASAP!

NOTE #3 [Added 31 July] I've changed my view of the Cambridge incident after watching Sgt. Crowley's news conference at the AFL-CIO in Washington DC, following the "beer summit" with the President and VP and Prof. Gates. Crowley came across as a mature, responsible, thoughtful, and well-spoken police officer. He answered questions from the press in a straightforward way and showed himself to be anything but racist.

Gates, on the other hand, merely issued a statement after the "beer summit" and did not consent to answer questions about his behavior on the evening he was arrested. (Gates did speak to reporters earlier in the week with his highly dramatized version of the incident in which he makes what I consider to be unsupported charges about Sgt. Crowley's motives, tactics, and actions prior to the arrest.)

This new information has led me to believe that Joel's initial assessment, expressed in comments on this Blog, is probably correct. When Sgt. Crowley showed up at Gates' house in response to a 911 call, I now believe Gates took that as an opportunity to dramatize "racial profiling" and the plight of "the black man in America" for the benefit of his planned PBS documentary. He may have purposely "baited" Crowley and the other police officers at the scene with trash talk and everything short of physical resistance expecting to goad them into arresting him.

Gates bad response has already paid off for him. He got a widely publicized meeting with President Obama and the PBS documentary will certainly get higher ratings.

Let me add, however, that I still think it is a pity Crowley took the bait and arrested Gates. While Gates' action met the legal definition of "disorderly conduct in public", Crowley had Gates' Harvard ID in hand and knew he was not a danger to anyone. He should not have been arrested.

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

Ira said:



Obama said: "Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry."

I think that any of us would have be grateful that the police had arrived in response to the neighbor's call. We would have gladly shown a picture ID after having tinkered with the door of a house that had had a recent break-in. We would have been very surprised and dismayed if the police had simply gone away without ID being shown. We would not have gone off on a rant about racial bias, how important we were or called the officers names. We would not expect special treatment because of our friends in high places or our academic credentials or television notoriety.

The President saw an opportunity to score points with the racial community that was down on him for what they perceived as a lackluster and even a negative performance in fighting for their agenda. Not knowing the facts (and saying so) did not prevent him from making a judgment in favor of a celebrated friend in that community.

There is absolutely no evidence that the officers' actions were racially motivated, yet there are those who wish to perpetuate racial discord for their own purposes. Obama would like to stand above us and pretend we still have a long way to go. His election is proof that we don't, therefore he needs to manufacture prejudice. -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Joel for your Comment. You are correct that you and I and most white people would have cooperated fully, shown our ID, and thanked the police and the woman who called 911 for their attentiveness to a possible burglary at our house. I respect your comment.

As President Obama said, "There was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far so good. They're reporting, the police are doing what they should. There's a call. They go investigate what happens."

Prof. Gates, as I wrote, "responded badly". However, he eventually provided his Harvard ID. A Harvard Police Officer was on the scene when Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police made the arrest.

As a "racial profiling" instructor for the Cambridge Police, Crowley should have understood that a 60-year-old black man in America has undoubtedly been subjected to police harrassment. Gates' reaction, though legally wrong, was at least emotionally understandable and probably morally justified.

According to the police report I linked to, written by Crowley himself, Gates did no more than shout about racial profiling and threaten political repercussions from his friends in high places. He did nothing physical nor was he capable of running away. At the point Crowley ordered Gates to be cuffed, he had Gates Harvard ID in his hand, had radioed the details in to the Cambridge Police Department, and a Harvard Policeman was on scene to verify the ID. While there was probably legal justification, there was absolutely no logical reason to cuff the suspect.

You will notice that I am suggesting less stringent application of the law to a black man, which amounts to "reverse discrimination", something I oppose in all other cases. I justify my inconsistency as follows: (1) Had the two men forcing the door been white, would the woman have made the 911 call without asking them what they were doing? (2) Had the man Sgt. Crowley saw through the glass-paned door been white, would the policeman have acted differently?

You and I do not know the answer to these questions, but I suspect both the woman and the policeman would have acted differently. There is no evidence either of them is what we might call a "formal racist", but, if we are honest with ourselves, we would admit we whites are more likely to suspect a black man than a white man, all else being equal.

As for President Obama's comment that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting ...", he has backed away a bit, but he was right in the first place. Yes, he was not there and did not know all the facts in the case. However, he knew enough about his friend "Skip Gates" and about the experience of "the black man in America" to make his comments. That is my opinion. Of course, you are entitled to yours.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Perhaps the key to this particular bit of insanity can be found in the following quote from the Daily News:
The scholar told Obama he's working on a new documentary for PBS on the history of racial profiling and hopes the country has learned something from his arrest.

"If my experience leads to the lessening of the occurrence of racial profiling, then I would find that enormously gratifying," Gates wrote.

"Because, in the end, this is not about me at all; it is about the creation of a society in which 'equal justice before law' is a lived reality."

When in doubt, follow the money (or tv ratings). -Joel

Ira Glickstein said...

Perhaps you are right, Joel, that Gates acted up to get better ratings for his PBS documentary on racial profiling. Or, perhaps, he was simply sensitized to the issue by his personal experiences and his work on that topic. There is no strong evidence one way or the other.

We do not know the exact words Sgt. Crowley used when he confronted Gates. Did he gently say "Sorry to bother you sir, but we've had a report of a burglary at this house and I'd appreciate it if you'd show me a photo ID" or did he say "HEY! What in hell are you doing here? Get your hands up and show me some ID!" It is possible Crowley said something more like the former but the message heard by Gates was more like the latter.


This reminds me of the case of the old lady who reported two city workmen had been shouting and cursing in front of her house. The City Commissioner called the two, Tony and Mac, and they showed up with their union lawyer.

"Exactly what happened?" demanded the Commissioner.

The lawyer spoke: "Well, Anthony and Macnamara were working on that sewer project on Third Street when Anthony accidentally struck Macnamara on the head with his pickaxe. Macnamara said 'In the future, Anthony, I'd appreciate it if you were more careful with that dangerous implement.' Anthony replied, 'Sorry Macnamara, I appologize profusely. However, in the future, you should strive to allow adequate working room for your associates when they are swinging a pickaxe.'"

"Is that exactly what you said, Tony?" demanded the Commissioner.

"Dats how it happen an whut Mac and me sez to each oter", he replied meekly.

"And you Mac, what do you have to say?"

"Yep, just like the lawyer sez. An afta dat I take Tony to da emergency and he get 21 stiches in his head."


Perhaps Gates will invite Crowley to appear on his PBS documentary since Corwley is a police instructor on that topic. Maybe they'll write a book together!

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

This type of "misunderstanding" certainly riles people up on both sides. I found myself getting angry whichever side I chose to empathize with.

Colin Powell's comment was most apt. He said they both need some "adult supervision."


Ira Glickstein said...

What have we come to, Howard, that a distinguished Harvard scholar, 58 years old, and an experienced and respected police officer need, in Colin Powell's words, "adult supervision"?

Understandably, most of the commentators on my favorite and top-rated cable news channel supported Sgt. Crowley (with the notable exception of Giraldo Rivera). I was pleased yesterday when Bill O'Reilly finally said Crowley probably should not have arrested Prof. Gates.

I don't think I have ever seen you angry Howard and am surprised you cold get angry at either Gates or Crowley when you empathized with the other. I can't get angry with either.

Ira Glickstein