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]
PRESIDENT OBAMA'S STATEMENT WAS RIGHT ON
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.
WHAT HAPPENED AND HOW AND WHEN IT WENT WRONG
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".]
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.