President Barack Obama’s press conference took a surprising turn when the President decided to weigh in on the controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by the Cambridge Police. While admitting that he did not know all of the facts, the President called the police stupid in their response to the call of a suspected break in.
The President stated that “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.”
The President admitted that Gates is a friend and that “I don’t know all the facts.” However, he felt that the matter should have ended with proof that this was Gates’ house. He raised the specter of racial profiling: “I guess this is my house now. Here I’d get shot.” He noted that “[s]eparate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-American and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”
Ironically, the arresting officer Sergeant James M. Crowley is one of the academy experts who teaches a course on racial profiling, here.
The incident has caused an intense debate on this blog and other sites. A neighbor saw someone forcing open a front door and did the right thing in calling police, in my view. It would be a bit unfair to suggest that this neighbor Lucia Whalen was clearly racist in making such a call. Assuming that we agree that she was correct in making the call, the main controversy focuses on the police and their response. The officers insist that Gates became immediately belligerent and refused to come out of the house. On the other hand, accounts suggest that Gates was willing to show this proof of residency and eventually did come out on to the front porch. Even assuming Gates acted in a boorish and insulting manner in allegedly calling the police racists and pulling rank, I fail to see why an arrest was warranted.
Police officers, however, may be a bit put out by the President’s intervention. The police insist that Gates escalated the matter and could have simply resolved the dispute by cooperating without the alleged outburst. I am not sure that we will ever know the facts with complete certainty. The issue of profiling is an obvious concern, though most people (I think) would agree that a call is appropriate when someone is seen forcing their way into a home. Moreover, the police may argue that they needed Gates to come out on to the porch to match his identification with his face and confirm that there was nothing suspicious occurring. I would expect that officers would be equally insistent on speaking directly to me if I were seen forcing a door at my own home.
This may be a case of everyone allowing a routine police call to get out of hand.
The officer, Sergeant James M. Crowley, denies that he is a racist and refused to apologize, here. Below is Gates’ account.
For the full arrest report, click here.
For the story, click here.
Statement on Behalf of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — by Charles Ogletree
This brief statement is being submitted on behalf of my client, friend, and colleague, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This is a statement concerning the arrest of Professor Gates. On July 16, 2009, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 58, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor of Harvard University, was headed from Logan airport to his home [in] Cambridge after spending a week in China, where he was filming his new PBS documentary entitled “Faces of America.”
Professor Gates was driven to his home by a driver for a local car company. Professor Gates attempted to enter his front door, but the door was damaged. Professor Gates then entered his rear door with his key, turned off his alarm, and again attempted to open the front door. With the help of his driver they were able to force the front door open, and then the driver carried Professor Gates’ luggage into his home.
Professor Gates immediately called the Harvard Real Estate office to report the damage to his door and requested that it be repaired immediately. As he was talking to the Harvard Real Estate office on his portable phone in his house, he observed a uniformed officer on his front porch. When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University. The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into his kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver’s license to the officer. Both include Professor Gates’ photograph, and the license includes his address.
Professor Gates then asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates’ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates. As Professor Gates followed the officer to his own front door, he was astonished to see several police officers gathered on his front porch. Professor Gates asked the officer’s colleagues for his name and badge number. As Professor Gates stepped onto his front porch, the officer who had been inside and who had examined his identification, said to him, “Thank you for accommodating my earlier request,” and then placed Professor Gates under arrest. He was handcuffed on his own front porch.
Professor Gates was taken to the Cambridge Police Station where he remained for approximately 4 hours before being released that evening. Professor Gates’ counsel has been cooperating with the Middlesex District Attorneys Office, and the City of Cambridge, and is hopeful that this matter will be resolved promptly. Professor Gates will not be making any other statements concerning this matter at this time.