Monday, July 27, 2009

About Professor Gates

Everybody else has weighed in on this, why should I be left out? I think by now everyone knows the story of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard, who was hauled into the Cambridge police station because - well, there we get into disagreement. One group says it's because he was Entering a House While Black. One group says it's because he sassed a cop. One group says his neighbor called the cops on him because he was black.

Here are my thoughts on this mess, in no particular order.

I recall reading that Prof. Gates had been on an extended trip to China; he'd been gone for several weeks. Did his neighbor know he was due back that night? As a member of a local community policing citizen group, we encourage people to call the cops if they see what looks like a break-in attempt, especially if they know the homeowner is away. I give the neighbor full marks for civic involvement. I'm appalled to read on CNN that what H.L. Mencken called the booboisie is phoning her and threatening her for being a racist.

The 911 tape from this incident has been released, and the neighbor simply said, "two men." She didn't mention their race. In fact, she said she couldn't see one of them at all, and she thought the other one "looked kind of Hispanic." Obviously, when Sgt. Crowley arrived at the scene, he could see that both men were black. But it's clear that the 911 call was caused by the appearance of a break-in.

It's very clear that Prof. Gates took immediate and extreme umbrage at being accosted in his own house. I can understand that. On the other hand, in my experience it is never a good idea to argue with a cop at the scene, even if you think he's wrong.
I read one account that said the professor was trying to keep the sergeant from phoning in. It sounds to me as if the professor over-reacted and caused a scene, and Sgt. Crowley hauled him in for disorderly conduct.

Here again, I've been working with the police in Oakland, California for a couple of years now. I rode along with an officer for a shift, when I took the Citizen's Police Academy. Their level of professionalism, in general, is very high. (Disclosure: I have no personal experience with the Cambridge police.) But you have to keep one thing in mind about police officers, and we learned this the hard way last March: police officers have the only non-military job in which you can be killed at any moment, in the normal course of work, by someone you don't know has a gun. When they walk into any new situation, as Sgt. Crowley did, they are on edge. They have both professional training and personal desire to stay in complete control of the situation. Sgt. Crowley, when he approached the house, had reason to believe he was accosting two burglars; and he was alone. When the professor showed his ID, the sergeant obviously knew he wasn't dealing with a burglar; but by that time he was dealing with an angry man who was yelling at him.

As far as I can tell, the only good thing about the incident is that it has all of us talking about it. I hope all parties can discuss it rationally when they have their beer at the White House.


  1. I agree. Seems to me like everyone in that situation needed to take a deep breath and calm down.

  2. Mr. Gates predictably decided to capitalize on the situation to show what a militant Black man he is, and how he isn't going to be bossed around--the bigger the crowd, and the greater the potential for an "incident" involving alleged racism, the better. It certainly wasn't about racism initially, but it eventually was.

    Officer Crowley is a typical Irish Boston cop. "Don't mess with me, or you're headed for the slammer, bud!" The smart thing would have been to smile at Mr. Gates, and walk patiently away from the situation, wishing everyone a good night's sleep. Gates could have made a big deal out of it, but without an arrest, or a public "scene" that wouldn't have gone anywhere. But Crowley put his badge and his reputation on the line, because his manhood was challenged.

    Police who can't handle a little verbal abuse don't belong on a police force.

    If I were Crowley's superior, I'd suspend his ass for 6 months. If he appealed, I'd fire him. Period.

    In my experience, this is always the way police act: Assume guilt, provoke and provoke, get angry, throw their weight around, and generally make everything worse.

  3. Try to remember that, with the police as with all other groups, 90% of the ruckus is caused by 10% of the population. I still remember the endlessly patient Oakland cop, trying to coax details of a mugging from an autistic teenager (the victim), the day I did my ride-along. No "typical Irish cop" there.

    The best thing about this so far is that the professor and the policeman seem to have agreed that the conversation at the White House was productive, and will meet again to talk.

  4. The problem is that the 10% of the non-police population that causes a ruckus gets arrested while the 10% of the police population that causes a ruckus gets off scot free as the other 90% refuses to do anything about it almost all of the time (the thin blue line).