Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Henry Louis Gates Incident

Cross-posted by Gary Fouse

Professor Henry Louis Gates- A victim of racist cops?

I was going to pass on commenting on the Henry Louis Gates incident in Cambridge this week because I was not familiar with Gates and felt that I didn't really know the facts well enough to come to a conclusion. Last night, however, President Obama did come to a conclusion, which I feel was a mistake on his part.

Professor Gates of Harvard University was arrested this week when police answered a neighbor's call to a residence Gates was renting. It seems that Gates was returning from an overseas trip and his door was jammed, so he had to break the door, jimmy the lock, or whatever. At any rate, a neighbor apparently called the cops suspecting a break-in might be taking place.

As the story goes, when police arrived to investigate, Gates was already in his house and police asked to check his ID. According to the police report, Gates became verbally abusive and tumultuous, accusing the police of checking him out because he was a "black man in America". The exchange reportedly continued outside in view of neighbors, and at some point, Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, a charge that has now been dropped.

Now the incident has become a cause celebre with academics and the mainstream media taking up Gates' side of the incident. CNN has reported it under their "Black in America" series on their website. The mayor of Cambridge has apologized to Gates, who is still claiming he was a victim of racial profiling and is demanding an apology from the responding officer, James Crowley. Crowley has publicly defended his actions and says no apology is warranted. By the way, take a close look at the photo of Gates in handcuffs. One of the arresting officers is black.

But now the President has weighed in. Asked about the incident by a reporter during his news conference last night, Obama admitted he had a certain bias since he and Gates are friends, then opined that the police "acted stupidly". He also left out any mention of Gates acting in a disorderly manner-only that after he identified himself, he was arrested.

So while admitting my own bias (I am retired from law enforcement), I will give a couple of opinions-again emphasizing that I was not there. First of all, the police had a duty to respond to the call and investigate to ensure that there was no break-in. They thus, had a duty to ask for Gates' ID and ascertain he was indeed the occupant of that property. So what was it that officer Crowley did or said that set Gates off? Did he pull a gun and throw Gates against the wall? No mention of that. Did he call Gates a racial epithet? No mention of that. From what I have read, Crowley's offense was checking Gates (a black man) out at what turned out to be his own place of residence, at which point, Gates launched a tirade.

The bottom line is this: when confronted by the police, you should cooperate, identify yourself and answer the questions. This incident surely could have been resolved quickly and amicably if all parties acted like adults. It appears that Gates became unruly because the police had come to his residence to check him out-because he was black-in his opinion.

Now can some cops be over-aggressive and act like jerks? Sure. If that is the case, you should simply follow the commands, and, if the cop is in the wrong, take down his/her name and badge number and lodge a complaint. If Gates chose to create a larger incident out of the one that already existed, shame on him.

President Obama last night raised the issue of the disproportionate stops of blacks and Latinos by police. Without going into the disproportionate crime rates, let's put that in some perspective. If cops are assigned to a predominantly black or Hispanic precinct, such as exists in Los Angeles or other major cities, virtually everybody they stop will be a minority. That is a simple fact. For example, stops by LAPD in East LA are invariably of Latins. Does that make them guilty of racial profiling? In some peoples' eyes, yes, but not in mine. (I assume the Gates incident was not in a minority neighborhood.)

What if the cops had not responded to the call, and it turned out that there was indeed a break-in or home invasion in progress? Who would be held responsible if someone, like Gates, wound up dead-the victim of a violent crime? Wouldn't the cops be guilty of gross negligence? Of course they would.

I suppose it all comes down to who said what to whom that exacerbated the situation. Maybe Officer Crowley did say something improper that angered Gates. So far, I have not heard it. It would have to be something more than Gates was checked out at his home and happened to be black. The impression that I am left with-at this point-is that Gates had a chip on his shoulder and acted like a jerk. Maybe I am being just as biased as President Obama in coming to a conclusion, but I am not the President of the United States. It may turn out that Obama owes the Cambridge police an apology.

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