Before Singing Kumbaya at Happy Hour, Consider The Power of Police

I have to do this
now because after today, everything about the Henry Louis Gates fiasco will be
forgotten. Pictures of Smiling Barack, Smiling Skip and Smiling Sgt. Crowley
all holding beers and possibly singing Kumbaya will be all over the news, and
everything will change. After today, the cause of race relations will be one
step closer to being solved forever. 


And while I think
the president's idea to bring everyone together for a beer is a clever way to
defuse this, there is an aspect of this discussion that is far too important to
let go completely.


This column isn't
about race relations, by the way. As I said previously, I think race may have
played a part in this situation, but it was a small part, and both men involved
are culpable, even if everything in the police report went down as stated, which
is looking less likely with every revelation. No, this is about the concept that Sergeant Crowley somehow deserves a pass for bad
behavior because he's a police officer. What I'm seeing is very dangerous, and
we should be really careful.


Everything Sgt.
Crowley did that day was wrong. Not just a little wrong, but very, very wrong.
Now, that doesn't mean he's a bad cop; we all have bad days. But it really
bothers me that so many seem so anxious to give him the benefit of the doubt
because he chose to become a police officer.

And can we dispense with this
nonsense that every police officer in the job puts his life on the line for us
every single time they go out? The concept is absurd. Can we at least acknowledge that there is a
distinct difference between being a police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
and being a cop in South Central LA? Or how about this one, which I think we can all
agree on; there's a difference between Sheriff Taylor of Mayberry and Detective
Munch of New York, late of Baltimore, right?


The woman next door
saw Professor Gates and his driver trying to get into his house. Her 911 call
only suggested that a break in was POSSIBLE. She wasn't sure; she even noted
the suitcases next to the men, and suggested that it could be the owner, but she
wasn’t sure. Therefore, Sgt. Crowley was not investigating a burglary. He was
there to discover whether or not a burglary was taking place. That's not
exactly a subtle difference. Also, keep in mind, the 911 call occurred in the
middle of the day; it was recorded at 12:44 PM. That's in the middle of a sunny
day. Now, calculate the odds that a burglary is happening at 12:44 PM, by two
men carrying suitcases. Even the woman calling it in wasn't convinced that a
burglary was happening; it's difficult to believe that a trained police officer
would think it was a strong likelihood. 
Even according to Crowley's report, when he arrived at the Gates home,
he saw Professor Gates standing in the foyer.


Therefore, as he
approached the home, he already knew the odds of there having been a burglary
were close to zero. Not many break-ins in the middle of the day, in which the
perp is standing in the foyer of the home, acting casually, as if it was his
own home. 


The next part is a
little fuzzy, because it doesn't make a lot of sense, unless Professor Gates
has a problem with Tourette's or something. Crowley supposedly approached Gates
and asked him to come outside, and that he was investigating a possible break in
at the address. But Gates supposedly started in immediately, saying things to
Crowley that sound very much like things white people imagine black people
saying to white people every day.  Gates
was cranky after what had to be a really long flight, but I can't imagine him
launching into an attack, completely unprovoked.  Ad frankly, the recording of Crowley's
interaction with dispatch demonstrate none of the yelling and screaming that
supposedly made it impossible for the officer to get an identification of the
professor, as he states in his report.


But, so what if
Gates did yell at Crowley? That makes him a jerk, not a criminal. The only job
the officer had at that point was to determine if there had been a break in,
and when he got there, the odds were already against it, and even his police
report proves it. He arrived at the scene by himself, and he didn't wait for
back up before approaching the home. He saw Gates standing in his foyer, acting
as if he owned it. Within the space of a couple of a few minutes, he had
identification that he could use to verify that he was a homeowner. Crowley
himself said he talked to Harvard Police; he couldn't have asked them to verify
Gates' address? He couldn't bring the neighbor over for an identification, to
put the whole concept of burglary to rest?


Sgt. Crowley had an
absolute duty to defuse the situation, regardless of what happened, or what
Gates said to him. He could have determined within a minute or two whether or
not Gates owned the home, at which point he should have turned on his heels,
said "sorry to have bothered you," and walked the hell away. Period.
Hey, it's the United States of America; a man has the right to be a jerk in his
own home, if he so chooses. Sgt. Crowley had many options available to him,
including going back to his unmarked police car, and calling some people, to
verify that Henry Louis Gates was, in fact, the owner of the home, at which
point he could have apologized for bothering the professor, leaving, and then
ranting to his buddies about the jerk college professor who shouted racial
stuff at him over Happy Hour.


Let's explain
something here that seems to be increasingly forgotten these days. The police work for us, not the other way around. You
have no legal duty to the police, other
than to not impede their investigation of a crime. They are not entitled to
access to your home without a warrant, a definitive statement of probable cause
that a crime has been committed, or your permission. That's it.


Crowley was NOT
investigating a burglary. In fact, he was investigating whether or not a
burglary had occurred. I know that sounds like some serious hair-splitting, but
it's not. The fact of the matter is, a crime had not occurred at the Gates
house, and at the time Crowley arrived at the Gates home, he had no basis for a
suspicion that one had occurred.  If you
doubt that, consider the fact that he approached the "burglar" alone,
without waiting for his backup.


I'm not convinced
the incident was racist in nature; to me, it seems very much like typical
authoritarian police behavior, and it has to stop.  He asked Gates to step outside, and Gates
refused. Gates is allowed to refuse, and Crowley did not have the authority to
make him. Obviously, the officer is somehow used to being obeyed, and didn't
like being challenged. The only problem is, Gates had every right to challenge
the officer, and you have that right as well. Police simply cannot be allowed
to arrest people just because their authority is being challenged. In reality,
absent a crime, police have no authority, especially inside a person's home.


Gates told Crowley
he owned the home. Believe it or not, Crowley's only legal option at that point
was to accept him at his word and investigate further. He is NOT entitled to
identification, or proof of ownership. It is not OUR job to prove our own innocence;
it is the officer's job to make a case for probable cause, or to go to a judge
and get a warrant. If Crowley had an inkling he was speaking to a burglar, he
had many resources at his disposal with which to verify the owner's name. He
could have gone to the woman who made the 911 call and asked her to identify
him. He was NOT, however, ENTITLED to proof from Henry Louis Gates that he is,
in fact, Henry Louis Gates, or that he owns the home, or anything else, unless
he can establish that a crime has been committed.  And even then, his authority is extremely


And that's the key
behind all of this, and a very important concept that more and more Americans
seem to be forgetting these days. I'm hearing otherwise right thinking people
taking on this notion that, just because we respect and honor the sacrifices many
in law enforcement make, we should defer to them at every turn. If a police
officer asks for identification, you just give it to him. If he asks you a
question, you should simply answer it. 
If a police officer requests your cooperation, you should simply give
it. Otherwise, he can arrest you, or make your life a living hell somehow.


Why don't more
people understand how this undermines our criminal justice system? If this
hadn't been Henry Louis Gates, but a lesser-known person, would they have
dropped the charges? What if the victim of this overzealous action by a police
officer had been a janitor at Harvard,
and not a professor? How much power are we willing to give the police over our
everyday lives?


I'm not saying we
shouldn't cooperate with police. I'm not saying we shouldn't be polite and
courteous to police most of the time. Of course we should. What I'm saying is,
police are not legally entitled to it. YOU are entitled to a presumption of
innocence throughout the justice process, not just when you're on trial. Police
are not allowed to presume a crime has been committed sans evidence, and you
are under no obligation to produce proof that you are not involved in a crime,
just because a police officer asks you to. If Professor Gates started yelling
at the top of his lungs (and I have my doubts), then he was wrong to do so. But
he was not criminal. And as your mother told you, two wrongs do NOT make a
right, and the wrong done by Sergeant Crowley was a far worse wrong, because he
voluntarily took an oath to uphold the law.


There is a tendency
to give police a pass on many things, based on the fact that they have a
difficult job that most of us would never do. But when it comes to the law, we
cannot give them a pass. When it comes to our rights, we cannot give them a
pass. What this police officer did was absolutely wrong, and cannot be
tolerated. Police cannot be allowed to get away with acting on a whim, or
taking away our freedoms just because they don't like us, or because their
feelings are hurt. The word "police state" seems a little
extreme  when you think of this case, but
that's what you get when you allow police to 'act stupidly" and take away
people's rights at will.


While everyone else
is singing nice songs and waxing eloquent about racial harmony, as they gaze
upon the sight of a white police officer, a black intellectual, and the first
black president, remember what this incident is really about; we've given way to
much power to police, and it's time to consider how to take it back.


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  1. Great post!
    I agree with every word. The bacon lost a pissing contest and went petulant on the Professor. The sad thing is this happens more often than anyone wants to admit. I’ll give you that cops are human, and can be as stressed by work as anyone on a job. The thing with the rest of the world is we aren’t armed and badged up.

  2. I stand corrected. Apparently, in the last ten years, the percentage of burglaries during daylight hours has climbed to around half. Thanks for pointing that out…

  3. This is excellent analysis (and actually an excellent blog overall).
    However, one correction needs to be made.
    A high percentage of burglaries do in fact take place during the daylight hours (especially before noon). At my apartment complex, the time period between 10 and 12 is the most frequent time when burglaries take place.

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