By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

In Cambridge, a dubious balancing act

I have not yet read the report of the Cambridge Review Committee, which investigated last July’s arrest of Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. But unless someone tells me otherwise, I’m not sure I need to — the bottom line is enough.

According to news accounts, the committee found that both Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, were to blame, and that each man missed opportunities to “de-escalate” the situation, which ended when Gates was arrested on disorderly-conduct charges. Those charges were quickly dismissed.

The only thing that strikes me as worth saying — again — is that Gates clearly lost it that day. But he was standing in his own home, believing (probably falsely) that he was the victim of racial profiling. Crowley had a badge, a gun and the certain knowledge that Gates was the resident, not an intruder.

Both men are not to blame. Crowley should have left.

Martin Finucane of the Boston Globe covers the story here, and Laura Crimaldi of the Boston Herald catches up with Gates’ lawyer, Harvard Law school professor Charles Ogletree.

Earlier coverage.

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  1. Neil Sagan

    …Gates clearly lost it that day. But he was standing in his own home, believing (probably falsely) that he was the victim of racial profiling. Crowley had a badge, a gun and the certain knowledge that Gates was the resident, not an intruder.

    Both men are not to blame. Crowley should have left.

    I agree.

    So why then did Crowley arrest Gates, and do it the only way he could, on the front porch and not in the house? Because to Crowley Gates was just another asshole who didn’t respect his authoritay.

    We should pass ‘contempt of cop’ legislation in the Commonwealth so that people can be charged with it and pay a $1 fine for the misdemeanor that’s struck from one record after the fine is paid.

  2. Neil Sagan

    Ogletree said Gates is “surprised” the committee believes he bears some responsibility.

    “He’s just surprised that the committee shifted a burden on him to do things that no other citizen should be asked to do,” Ogletree. “He did everything a citizen should do.”

    In particular, Ogletree noted Gates was arrested even after he produced his Harvard identification and a Massachusetts driver’s license showing he lived at 17 Ware St.

    He also said the report fails to give a “complete understanding” of the role of the 911 caller, Lucia Whalen. Olgetree said Crowley wrote in his report that he was responded to a call about a report of two black men with backpacks. He added Whalen has said she never described the men as black.

    “She didn’t know whether the men there had lost their keys, whether they worked there or whether they lived there. There was no presumption,” said Ogletree, who authored a book about the incident, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America.”

  3. Bill Duncliffe

    Good to see the armchair police are on the beat.

    Is it not at all interesting that Officer Crowley has had exactly one (1) disorderly conduct arrest in the last 5 years, that being Professor Gates?

    If Prof. Gates was, indeed, just “another (expletive) who didn’t respect his authority,” as Officer Sagan proposes, it seems unlikely that in a city full of students and activists Prof. Gates was the only one in a 5 year period who would end up being arrested.

    But I suppose it’s easier to be like Officer Kennedy – not read the report, aver that he doesn’t need to anyway, but then go ahead and offer an opinion on who was right and who was wrong.

    Talk about profiling!

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: I certainly read Crowley’s report, and we know that it contains a significant discrepancy from what the lone witness has said. I don’t think the committee’s report is online yet, but I will be scanning it to see whether it deals with that issue.

  4. Bill Duncliffe

    I believe Officer Crowley’s report says he spoke to the witness on the sidewalk outside of Prof. Gates’ house. So the lone witness who, let’s face it, given the contretemps this incident became, had every reason to say she did not identify the suspects as black leaves us with a “he said/she said” dilemma unlikely to ever be resolved.

    If she really thought there was a chance they had lost their keys, or worked there, or lived there, why the 911 call in the first place?

    Clearly she thought something was suspicious. So is it a stretch to imagine that in an encounter on the sidewalk with Officer Crowley she may have described them differently than in the 911 call itself?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: You need to go back and review the facts. She said that when she called the police station, she did not identify the intruders as black. The most interesting discrepancy is that Crowley says she gave him information at the scene — and she says she never even spoke to him.

  5. Bill Duncliffe

    Dan – As I said in my comment, we are at a “he said/she said” moment. It comes down to whether the witness or the officer is to be believed.

    There are obviously police officers who engage in the type of behavior that is subject to pure speculation here. When those types of cases have surfaced in the past it is not umcommon at all to find the officer(s) in question to have a repeated pattern of these behaviors.

    So why should the default be given to the witness when the officer demonstrably has no record of this type in the past? Because other police officers have done that? Isn’t that but another form of profiling?

  6. Neil Sagan

    Do you have the link to the Cambridge Review Committee report?

    I’m interested in how it handled the discrepancy between

    – the 911 call (which I listened to via fox25 website)
    – the 911 callers account of her conversation with Officer Crowley at the scene (both as represented by Officer Crowley in his incident/arrest report and as represented by the 911 caller at her press conference and by listening to the 911 call audio, and
    – the changes made to Officer Crowley’s incident/arrest report which was revised within 24 hours of when it was originally filed.

    Crowley was leaving Gates house having determined there was no break in and no burglary.

    Only when Gates followed him through the front door did Crowley arrest him. Gates cannot be arrested for disorderly conduct in his own home. What was it that Gates did after he stepped through his front door that merited being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Neil: I’m not sure the full report has been posted anywhere yet, but no doubt it will be in the next day or so.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Just zipped through the report very quickly — I might have missed something. But @Bill Duncliffe might be interested in knowing that Crowley had made only 12 total arrests during the previous five years — not unusual, the committee says, because he was in a supervisory role. So the fact that he made just one disorderly-conduct arrest during that time is irrelevant. Also, it appears that the committee made no attempt to deal with the discrepancies between Crowley’s report and the claims made by the eyewitness.

  7. Neil Sagan

    The report has a fatal flaw; every criticism of either party’s action is undermined by blaming both parties equally for it. For example, it blames Gates for not being more trusting of Officer Crowley and both equally for not deescalating the confrontation.

    Gates said he would have done one thing and only one thing differently; not walk out his front door.

    Research is done – IE how many disorderly conduct charges were made by CPD officers over the years where no other member of the public was exposed to the alleged disorderly conduct other than the police officer – the results of which and conclusion thereon are omitted.

    The report explicitly claims to avoid fact-finding.

  8. BP Myers

    @Bill Duncliffe says: we are at a “he said/she said” moment. It comes down to whether the witness or the officer is to be believed.

    Actually, no. Gates was in his own home. The officer confirmed it was his own home. Once that was done, whatever Gates was saying or shouting, he should’ve tipped his hat and been on his way.

    There is no law against being disorderly in your own home.

  9. Bill Duncliffe

    BP – “He said/she said” refers to the two different versions regarding the encounter/lack thereof between Officer Crowley and the witness.

    Dan – Since the charge has been made by Officer Sagan and others that Officer Crowley was using the disorderly conduct charge as a cover for “contempt of cop” and that this is a typical police strategy, the fact that he has not used this charge at all for a period of 5 years is very relevant.

    Especially when, I think we can all agree, that if a police officer is prone to use trumped up disorderly conduct charges to arrest those who choose not to respect an officer’s authority, he/she is unlikely to find more fertile ground than Cambridge to find willing targets.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: You have a funny way with statistics, given that he only made 12 total arrests during that period. Well, I can do it too. More than 8 percent of Crowley’s arrests over the past five years were for disorderly conduct.

      Also, it’s not just Crowley’s word versus that of the eyewitness. Gates also claims a considerable amount of fiction-writing on Crowley’s part, including Crowley’s claim that Gates yelled, “Yo mama!” at him. I think Crowley owes a considerable amount of gratitude to President Obama not just for defusing the situation, but possibly for saving his job.

  10. BP Myers

    @Bill Duncliffe says: “He said/she said” refers to the two different versions regarding the encounter/lack thereof between Officer Crowley and the witness.

    That is all a distraction from the main point. The officer confirmed Gates was in his own home. The encounter should have ended there.

    It amazes me that folks who most bemoan the power and increasing authority of government aren’t up in arms over the police officer’s behavior. For, what are the police except the most authoritarian arm of the government?

    The man was in his own home.

  11. Neil Sagan

    I suppose it’s easier to be like Officer Kennedy

    Just as an officer of the law doesn’t have to go to law school to learn what vagrancy, burglary, truancy, armed robbery (or even testilying) means, people of other professions don’t need to go to police academy to evaluate a bad arrest. Apart from all of the facts in question, one fact you might consider is that the DA dropped the charges and called them unfortunate. Rather than criticize everyone else’s standing to make a judgment, you can argue in defense of the arrest and we’ll argue why it was the wrong decision for Officer Crowley to make, notwithstanding that he saved (well tried to save) Reggie Lewis life. (Does Doctor Crowley really think he’s in a position to try and save someone’s life?) Your argument that only one in the profession can accurately make a judgment is undermined by our Constitution. As a Constitutional matter, we give the press extraordinary power to report and juries extraordinary power to find fact. Citizens near and far are called to be on jury duty and many of them don’t go to police academy first.

    The report makes it clear. Citizens must learn to deescalate situations with the police so that police don’t make bad arrests and create embarrassing national news that sheds a poor light on the City of Cambridge’s reputation as lovingly diverse community. Yo mama.

  12. Neil Sagan

    Nial: Thank you for the link.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Nial: I was remiss in also not thanking you. Great contribution.

  13. Neil Sagan

    Strenuously even-handed independent review panel concludes being “disrespectful” to police in your own home, even if you’re cooperating with an inquiry, is now grounds for arrest.

    An independent review panel put together by the Cambridge police to examine the incident last year in which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his own home for disorderly conduct by Sgt. James Crowley is complete:

    The situation at Gates’ home quickly escalated when it shouldn’t have, according to the review put together by a 12-member panel assembled in September. No one on the panel had direct ties to the Cambridge Police Department.

    The report suggests that Crowley could have more clearly explained what he was doing and why he was doing it, especially after being shown Gates’ license and university ID. For his part, Gates could have used a more respectful tone to address the officer.

    This seems strenuously even-handed. Being “disrespectful” to police in your own home, even if you’re cooperating with an inquiry, is now grounds for arrest?

    Adam Serwer

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