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

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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.

“Contempt of cop” and the Gates case

When Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct inside his own home in Cambridge last July, the incident struck many of us as being less about race than about the right of someone who had done nothing wrong to mouth off to a police officer.

Now comes the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which has a story in today’s Boston Globe showing that what happened to Gates was part of a pattern in Cambridge. Though the center found no evidence of racial profiling, it did find that the majority of people charged with disorderly conduct from 2004 to ’09 were arrested because of something they said. A key excerpt:

The most striking conclusion of the review of Cambridge police data is that the majority of those arrested for disorderly conduct were allegedly yelling, often screaming obscenities, in front of police before the handcuffs snapped shut. More than 60 percent of the disorderly arrests reviewed by center involved some sort of allegedly inflammatory speech, such as talking back to the police, more commonly known as “contempt of cop.’’

Gates, as you recall, was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley, who had been dispatched to Gates’ home following a report that two men had been seen trying to force their way in. (Gates and his taxi driver had forced open a stuck door.) Gates, apparently believing he’d been racially profiled, exchanged words with Crowley, though the two disagree over exactly what was said.

We’re still waiting to hear why Crowley wrote in his report that a witness told him at the scene that two black men were observed trying to get in. The woman later said she made no mention of race when she called the police station, and that she never spoke directly with Crowley, as he claimed. Perhaps that will be explained in a report by a city task force, which, according to the Cambridge Chronicle, could be released any day now.

Bring lots of quarters


State officials have ruled that it’s all right for the Cambridge Police Department to charge the Cambridge Chronicle $1,215 for nearly a month’s worth of public records. The Chronicle had sought descriptions of criminal suspects, the addresses of those who had been arrested and the addresses to which police responded between July 1 and 27.

“Given that a large number of documents, which may contain sensitive information about the identities of the victims and witnesses, are required to be properly viewed, I consider this to be a reasonable fee estimate provided by the department,” the Chronicle quotes Alan Cote, the records supervisor for the secretary of state’s office, as saying.

Trouble is, the Chronicle contends that, before June, the police had routinely been making most of that information available. Even though the state has now found that the police are not doing anything illegal by withholding certain types of information from its daily public reports, the police department is nevertheless moving in a direction of less openness — not a good thing for any law-enforcement agency, let alone one that is in the midst of an investigation stemming from the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates.

As I wrote when this first came up in August, the fees being imposed by the police department are an outrageous breach of the public’s right to know. And it’s not being done in isolation. Last month the Boston Globe reported on public officials who are using high fees to discourage bloggers and financially struggling news organizations from obtaining public records.

It’s time for elected officials who believe in governmental openness to rethink the practice of charging high fees for information that, by right, ought to be freely available to the public.

The high cost of Cambridge police records

The Cambridge Police Department has adopted a restrictive policy that would force the Cambridge Chronicle to pay more than $1,200 to obtain public records of police activity for most of July, according to a story by Chronicle reporter Erin Smith. What’s more, the policy may be in violation of the Massachusetts public-records law.

Like all Massachusetts police departments, Cambridge’s makes a bare-bones incident log freely available to members of the public; it is, in fact, online. But state law exempts police departments from having to release detailed information about incidents that are under investigation.

What is and isn’t public information, and when it must be made public, are complicated matters that I’m not going to get into here. But the law does require that the public log — also known as the police blotter — contain the “names and addresses of persons arrested and charges against such persons.”

According to the Chronicle, though:

The Cambridge Police Department already keeps a daily police log online maintained by a student intern, but over the past several months, the Chronicle noticed that previously available information — such as the ages and addresses of arrested people, the addresses where crimes occurred and the description of suspects — was being withheld from the public.

In quickly scanning through a few days’ worth of the Cambridge log, I found several examples of arrestees whose addresses (and ages) were listed. I couldn’t find any whose address was not listed. I have no reason to doubt the Chronicle’s reporting, but it’s important to point that out.

The fees are another matter. Charging $1,215 for public records is an outrageous breach of the public’s right to know. The police department’s lawyer, Kelly Downes, cites the cost of compiling and copying those records. But the standard practice with many police departments is to allow reporters to view the originals at the police station, at no cost to anyone.

Given the embarrassment over the department’s recent arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates in his own home, you’d think that everyone would be on his or her best behavior these days. Well, think again.

And by the way — we’re still waiting to hear how Sgt. James Crowley, who arrested Gates, managed to incorporate information into his report from a woman who insists she never talked with Crowley. Maybe Downes hasn’t had a chance to work out a price for that particular piece of information.

Media should keep pushing on Crowley

Even many of us who think the Cambridge Police overreacted by arresting Henry Louis Gates in his own home have assumed — for the sake of argument if nothing else — that Sgt. James Crowley’s report was accurate.

I’ve contended from the beginning that Crowley’s mistake was in failing to recognize why Gates would think he’d been racially profiled. Friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate and Slate columnist Christopher Hitchens have both written that the issue wasn’t race, but Gates’ constitutional right to throw a nutty in his own home. I agree.

But with Crowley, Gates and President Obama settling in for an awkward beer later today, let’s not forget that there is an enormous discrepancy between Crowley’s report and the statements of Lucia Whalen, the woman who called 911 and then waited at the scene until police had arrived.

Using very specific, descriptive language, Crowley wrote that Whalen told him she’d seen “two black males with backpacks on the porch.” And when the Boston Herald pointed out the discrepancy to Crowley, he replied, “Obviously, I stand behind everything that’s in the police report. It wouldn’t be in there if it wasn’t true.”

Yet Whalen, at first through her lawyer, Wendy Murphy, and yesterday in her own appearance before the media (Boston Globe story here; Herald story here; Cambridge Chronicle story here), has insisted that she and Crowley never spoke.

The media need to keep pushing. If Crowley’s report turns out to be wrong in some fundamental way, then it calls everything else into question as well.

Creative Commons photo (cc) via Wikimedia.

No mistaken identity

On “Greater Boston” this evening, Wendy Murphy said Lucia Whalen did indeed meet Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley outside Henry Louis Gates’ house, but said nothing — certainly nothing about the race of the two men whom she’d reported in her 911 call.

According to Murphy, the full extent of their exchange was Crowley’s asking Whalen to stay put while he checked things out. Essentially, Murphy said, Whalen did not talk to Crowley at all.

Now, recall what Crowley wrote in his arrest report:

Whalen, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of the residence, held a wireless telephone in her hand and told me 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 [redacted] Ware Street.

This may be just a small detail that needs to be cleared up. Or not. We need to hear from Crowley and Whalen herself. What they have to say speaks to the accuracy of Crowley’s report.

A discrepancy emerges

I missed Wendy Murphy’s appearance on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) a little while ago. But in listening to host Jim Braude’s recap, it’s now clear that Murphy says Lucia Whalen never told anyone — including Sgt. James Crowley — that the two men she saw were black.

That directly contradicts not only what’s in Crowley’s arrest report, but also what he told the Boston Herald: “Obviously, I stand behind everything that’s in the police report. It wouldn’t be in there if it wasn’t true.”

Update: A question — did Crowley speak with another woman at the scene and, later, mistakenly identify her as Whalen?

“Two gentlemen”

The 911 recording has been released. And, as advertised, Lucia Whalen does not identify either of the “two gentlemen” as black, explaining she couldn’t tell, although she adds — in response to the dispatcher’s inquiry as to whether they were “white, black or Hispanic” — that one might be Hispanic.

There is, of course, no recording of her conversation at the scene with Sgt. James Crowley, which is when, according to Crowley’s report, she identified the men as “two black males.”

What did she say and when did she say it?

Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald today lead with the news that Lucia Whalen, the woman who told Cambridge Police on July 16 that two men were trying to enter what turned out to be Henry Louis Gates’ home, never mentioned race.

Yet I come away from the stories as perplexed as ever. It appears Whalen may have said one thing in her 911 call, and another when she spoke with Sgt. James Crowley outside Gates’ home. It doesn’t help that we’re hearing not from Whalen but from her spokeswoman, well-known Boston lawyer Wendy Murphy.

Here’s the relevant section from Crowley’s arrest report:

At approximately 12:44 PM, I was operating my cruiser on Harvard Street near Ware Street. At that time, I overheard an ECC [Emergency Communications and 911 Center] broadcast for a possible break in progress at [redacted] Ware Street. Due to my proximity, I responded.

When I arrived at [redacted] 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 I reached the door, a female voice called out to me. I turned and looked in the direction of the voice and observed a white female, later identified as Lucia Whalen. Whalen, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of the residence, held a wireless telephone in her hand and told me 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 [redacted] Ware Street.

The Globe story, by John Ellement and Matt Collette, focuses on the 911 call. Cambridge Police Chief Robert Haas confirms that Whalen did not mention race in her call, and speculates that a reference to “two black males” ended up in Crowley’s report as part of information collected during the investigation.

But Crowley’s report is much more specific than that. He claims directly that Whalen told him at the scene that the men she saw were black. Crowley tells Herald reporter Jessica Van Sack, “Obviously, I stand behind everything that’s in the police report. It wouldn’t be in there if it wasn’t true.”

I’m not sure how important any of this is. It’s been pretty clear from the beginning that the police were merely responding to a call, and that the caller may or may not have been motivated by race. From that perspective, we know as much (or as little) as we did before Wendy Murphy was heard from.

The two questions that should have been put to Murphy (and if they were, that should have been made clear) are: (1) What did Whalen tell Crowley when they met at the scene? (2) Why can’t we talk with your client?

John Timoney on the Gates arrest

From Miami Police Chief John Timoney, formerly the police commissioner in Philadelphia and a former top police official in New York:

There’s a fine line between disorderly conduct and freedom of speech. It can get tough out there, but I tell my officers, “Don’t make matters worse by throwing handcuffs on someone. Bite your tongue and just leave.”

Via Maureen Dowd.

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