Henry Louis Gates was not arrested because he was black, and the police officer
who arrested him is not a racist.
I actually think it's worse than that. I think this is about something that has been developing over the last 30 years, in which we have become a de facto police state of sorts, in various towns and cities
across the country. And it's partly our fault. For some reason, we have decided that police officers are entitled to a level of deference that goes well beyond simple respect.
For those of you
living under a rock the last few weeks, Professor Gates came home from a
trip to China a couple of weeks ago. After what one would assume was a long flight across many time zones, he arrived
home without his key, which forced him and his driver to
break into his home. As the two men worked at the door, they were spotted by a neighbor, who apparently didn't
recognize Gates, despite the fact that it was the middle of the day. So she called the
police to report a possible burglary.
So far, so good. It is a good neighbor who calls the police when she sees a burglary. It is also commendable that Cambridge
police immediately dispatched an officer, Sergeant Crowley, to the scene. When he arrived, the door was wide open and a man was inside. He was an elderly black man, who was walking around the house with the aid of a cane. Now, I can't imagine that Gates simply started screaming about "racist cops," but the only account we have is the police report, so we'll go with that. Gates supposedly started yelling and screaming about racism, unprovoked. But within a short amount of time, in the midst of all of this screaming and ranting and raving, and insisting that he owns the house, Gates
produces his Harvard identification.
Now, let's stop there
for a second.
Suppose you're a
police officer. Burglaries don't usually happen in the middle of the day (he got the call at 12:44 PM) in the first place. The fact that the door is wide open enough to see him in there, and the alleged "burglar" is a
67-year-old man walking with a cane.
Shouldn't the alarm bells have been
silenced at least somewhat by this point? I mean, I guess it's possible for a
67-year-old man with a cane to rob a house, but wouldn't it be a bit unusual
for one to be doing so with the door wide open?
And even according to the police report, Crowley seems to have ascertained that Gates belonged in the house, but admits to being "surprised and confused with the behavior exhibited toward me."
When Gates produced his Harvard
identification, even if the identification didn't have his address on it, what
is the likelihood that a Harvard professor would be robbing a house in
Cambridge that he was asserting he owned? In the middle of the day? Crowley even said he
called Harvard Police as soon as he was shown the identification. Would it have
been that difficult to ask Harvard police to verify Gates' address while he was
on the phone? Couldn't he have gone out to his unmarked car and killed two birds
with one stone, by both verifying that he lived there and also removing himself from
Gates' line of sight, and thereby possibly defusing his anger a little bit?
The police screwed this
one up big time. The odds were against it being a burglary from the get-go because of the time of day. By the time they got there, and saw this 67 year old man standing in the foyer of the house, and walking with a cane, they probably knew damn well they didn't have a burglary on their hands. Gates was being unnecessarily belligerent, and the things
he was saying were hurtful and uncalled-for, but so what? When you choose to work for the
public, shit happens. And make no mistake; police work for us, not the other way around, and
sometimes everyone forgets this. The second Sergeant Crowley realized that it was
unlikely no burglary had occurred, he and the other officers became
guests in Gates' house, and should have acted as such.
By his own account, Crowley was personally offended by Gates' invectives toward him. It's understandable, of course, but it's not against the law to yell at a police officer in your own house. It's not against the law to call a police officer a racist on your own property. And given that it was the middle of the day, it is unlikely that Gates was causing a disturbance great enough to warrant a disorderly conduct charge. And being belligerent to a police officer is not disorderly conduct.
situation is not about race; it's about testosterone. It's the equivalent of a couple of guys insulting each other's mother at a ball game, and getting into a fist fight. But what's frightening about this is the reaction to it, and a general attitude that seems prevalent with regard to police, and it needs to stop. For
some reason, police seem to feel entitled to certain information about us, simply because they want it, and that is simply not the case. Just because Crowley wanted information that Gates owned the home doesn't mean he was entitled to it. As I said, the police serve us, not the other way around,
and we'd all do well to remember that.
One of the more
troubling aspects of the discussions of this issue has been the contention by
some otherwise reasonable people that, when a police officer tells you to do something, you're are supposed to do it. To paraphrase an admonition my mother used to give me, if a police officer demanded that you jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it? The whole concept is in a word, bullshit.
This country still operates under a presumption of innocence, and
police have an obligation to work from that presumption, as much as anyone else. At the time Crowley got the call, the only evidence he had that someone was breaking into the Gates home (again, in the middle of the day!) was a neighbor's account that "two black men with backpacks" were messing with the door. When he saw Gates standing in the foyer of his house, he could have easily brought the neighbor over for an identification, and then he would have been able to approach Gates with an apology, and a clarification that a burglary had indeed not taken place.
But even if he didn't do the smart thing then, the moment Professor Gates handed Crowley his identification, the burden shifted. Gates had
proven who he was; it was Crowley's job to determine whether or not he belonged
there. Gates had no other obligation at that point. A police officer must have
probable cause or a warrant to even set foot on your property, and when that probable
cause is no longer valid, he is there as either a guest or a
I know a police
officer's job is not an easy one, although I doubt seriously that the job of a
police officer in Cambridge, MA compares in any way to being an officer in South
Central Los Angeles or the South Bronx, you know what I mean? So, this whole situation is absurd, from a law enforcement point of view. It was the middle of the day, and Crowley, who is probably a very good officer most days, just mucked it up. It happens.
But we absolutely must dispel this notion that some folks have, that when a police
officer asks you to do something, you should jump through hoops to make him
happy. I was listening to a podcast of Friday's Stephanie Miller Show Saturday night, and
I was yelling at my iPod, because the producer of the show was suggesting that
when an officer tells you to jump, your only response is to ask "how
high?" That is an absolute crock. You have every right to make demands of a police officer. And while I don't encourage rudeness to anyone, it is no more illegal to be rude to a police officer as anyone else.
And I really wanted to slap him by the fifth time he repeated that Gates
only gave the cop his Harvard ID, which didn't have his address on it. It doesn't matter! Gates
proved who he was, and he is under no obligation to prove even that. He's under no obligation to prove that he's not a burglar;
it's the officer's obligation to prove that he doesn't. Crowley had an
identification that proved that he was Henry Louis Gates, and that he was a
professor at Harvard. The officer said he called Harvard Police right after he
was given the identification; they couldn't have given him Gates' home address
while he was on the phone?
absence of stated probable cause or a warrant, no officer of the law is
entitled to anything at all from you. There is no law against being
belligerent, short of assault, and there is no law against insulting a police
officer. Gates was wrong to have screamed "racist" at Sergeant
Crowley, but Gates did nothing to be arrested for.
This was a typical
male-on-male "pork sword" fight, in which Sergeant Crowley lost, whether he realizes
it or not, because he refused to defuse the situation. Instead, he let his hurt personal feelings get into the way of his law enforcement judgment, and he ended up looking foolish.
But this wasn't
racism; it's endemic of a problem we have, in which police are given more power
than they have the right to.