July 23, 2009

Henry Louis Gates, Revisited.

The curious story of Henry Louis Gates just got a bit bigger with President Obama's comment last night that the police involve acted "stupidly". Gates, the notable African Studies professor at Harvard (and friend of the President), was arrested for disorderly conduct by Cambridge police responding to a call that two men were breaking into Gate's home, one of which turned out to be Gates himself. When the story hit the national presses, it immediately was framed as one racist police arresting a black man in his own home. (The charges were subsequently dropped)

However, the newly released Cambridge Police Report paints a much different story: one damning to Gate's allegations of racist misconduct by police, his prestige as an Ivy Leage academic, and his credibility as an individual. It was so bad that the Boston Globe removed it from their website for some reason, probably because it hurts the sensationalism of the story.

Our colleague Marcus Gadson of The Gadson Review wrote an article laying out three criteria for us to examine this incident: (1) should Gates have been arrested for his conduct?, (2) what would have befallen him if he was a poor black man instead of a well-known one-- would the charges still have been dropped?, and (3) would a white Professor have been similarly arrested in the same situation?

Post your answers in the comments section. Here's the report:

...When I arrived at Ware Street I radioed ECC and asked that they have the caller meet me at the front door to this residence. I was told that the caller was already outside. As I was getting this information, I climbed the porch stairs toward the front door. As [reached the door, a female voice called out to me. I looked in the direction of the voice and observed a white female, later identified {} who was standing on the sidewalk in front of the residence, held a wireless telephone in her hand arid told me that it was she who called. She went on to tell me that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of• Ware Street. She told me that 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. Since I was the only police officer on location and had my back to the front door as I spoke with her, I asked that she wait for other responding officers while I investigated further.

As I turned and faced the door, I could see an older black male standing in the foyer of {} Ware Street. I made this observation through the glass paned front door. As I stood in plain view of this man, later identified as Gates, I asked if he would step out onto the porch and speak with me. He replied “no I will not”. He then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was “Sgt. Crowley from the Cambridge Police” and that I was “investigating a report of a break in progress” at the residence. While I was making this statement, Gates opened the front door and exclaimed “why, because I’m a black man in America?”. I then asked Gates if there was anyone else in the residence. While yelling, he told me that it was none of my business and accused me of being a racist police officer. I assured Gates that I was responding to a citizen’s call to the Cambridge Police and that the caller was outside as we spoke. Gates seemed to ignore me and picked up a cordless telephone and dialed an unknown telephone number. As he did so, I radioed on channel I that I was off in the residence with someone who appeared to be a resident but very uncooperative. I then overheard Gates asking the person on the other end of his telephone call to “get the chief’ and “whats the chiefs name?’. Gates was telling the person on the other end of the call that he was dealing with a racist police officer in his home. Gates then turned to me and told me that I had no idea who I was “messing” with and that I had not heard the last of it. While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me. I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification so that I could verify that he resided at Ware Street and so that I could radio my findings to ECC. Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification but then did supply me with a Harvard University identification card. Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University Police.

With the Harvard University identification in hand, I radioed my findings to ECC on channel two and prepared to leave. Gates again asked for my name which I began to provide. Gates began to yell over my spoken words by accusing me of being a racist police officer and leveling threats that he wasn’t someone to mess with. At some point during this exchange, I became aware that Off. Carlos Figueroa was standing behind me. When Gates asked a third time for my name, I explained to him that I had provided it at his request two separate times. Gates continued to yell at me. I told Gates that I was leaving his residence and that if he had any other questions regarding the matter, I would speak with him outside of the residence.

As I began walking through the foyer toward the front door, I could hear Gates agai,n demanding my name. I again told Gates that I would speak with him outside. My reason for wanting to leave the residence was that Gates was yelling very loud and the acoustics of the kitchen and foyer were making it difficult for me to transmit pertinent information to ECC or other responding units. His reply was “ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside”. When I left the residence, I noted that there were several Cambridge and Harvard University police officers assembled on the sidewalk in front of the residence. Additionally, the caller, md at least seven unidentified passers-by were looking in the direction of Gates, who had followed me outside of the residence.

As I descended the stairs to the sidewalk, Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him. Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Gates ignored my warning and continued to yell, which drew the attention of both the police officers and citizens, who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates’s outburst. For a second time I warned Gates to calm down while I withdrew my department issued handcuffs from their carrying case. Gates again ignored my warning and continued to yell at me. It was at this time that I informed Gates that he was under arrest. I then stepped up the stairs, onto the porch and attempted to place handcuffs on Gates. Gates initially resisted my attempt to handcuff him, yelling that he was “disabled” and would fall without his cane. After the handcuffs were property applied, Gates complained that they were too tight. I ordered Off. Ivey, who was among the responding officers, to handcuff Gates with his arms in front of him for his comfort while I secured a cane for Gates from within the residence. I then asked Gates if he would like an officer to take possession of his house key and secure his front door, which he left wide open. Gates told me that the door was un securable due to a previous break attempt at the residence. Shortly thereafter, a Harvard University maintenance person arrived on scene and appeared familiar with Gates. I asked Gates if he was comfortable with this Harvard University maintenance person securing his residence. He told me that he was.

Update 1: Sgt. Crowley, the arresting officer has the full support of his union and is unapologetic (and quite professional in the interview).


  1. D'1112:13 PM

    Gates represents all the douchebaggery I normally associate with Harvard. This whole story is blown the hell out of proportion.

  2. Anonymous3:56 PM

    The amount of bad cops out there is overwhelming. I hear daily stories of their misbehavior. I automatically have a knee jerk response to any stories involving cops. My brother in law is a detective and I don't trust him either. It's not paranoia that's driving this, it's story after story of cops like this having no respect for anyone but themselves. This cop's arrogance was obvious when he told the US president to mind his own business. I don't know if Gates overreacted,but I do know this cop was a jerk. By the way, FYI, I'm white.

  3. I would say that Sgt. Crowley should have known that "Cop Arrests Black Man in Own House" would make for a terrible and widely broadcasted headline. Gates clearly egged on Crowley, testing the patience of any police officer and demonstrating is own prejudicial moral character. But this situation would have been best resolved with the officer simply walking away.

    I think Obama did the incident a disservice by commenting on it. Looking at the press conference he says says that he doesn't have all the facts but then proceeded to comment on it anyway. He should have just said, "I don't have all the facts" [full stop]. In not doing that, he has stuck his neck out, opening himself up for criticism, and also biasing any subsequent police investigation.

  4. Anonymous4:00 AM

    I think the police followed procedure based on a 911 call from a concerned passerby. The police were confronted by the hostility of the professor and acted accordingly. I live in France - I am white and I have been stopped by police here for simply running a red light on my bicycle when no traffic was coming. I was immediately berated and they threatened to put me in jail for 24 hours since I couldn't provide a proper ID. The police officer was white and there was a woman police officer as well and I was still treated aggressively. I maintained a polite demeanor and eventually I believe because of this always saying "Sir" and being apologetic and not raising my voice they softened their approach and let me off with a warning. I was thinking why were they so mean to begin with when I "look" like a harmless woman but it's probably because they have to deal with lots of people who are upset and aggressive when stopped by the police. I didn't think it was "racism" but I did think that their reaction to my little transgression was exaggerated but you know what I let it go and just thought these guys have a tough job and they must maintain the upperhand in dangerous situations which means they must be aggressive from the get go. I think if you are polite and provide them with the information they demand like your identity, address, etc. you will eventually be treated with the respect that we all deserve but until then the police don't know who they are dealing with and need to take measures to protect themselves including an initial belligerent demeanor.