Obama Says Cambridge Police ‘Acted Stupidly’ in Arrest of Black Harvard Scholar

July 23, 2009 - 6:27 AM
A white police sergeant who arrested renowned black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home says he followed procedure and is disappointed by the national debate triggered by the incident.
Natick, Mass. (AP) - A white police sergeant who arrested renowned black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home says he followed procedure and is disappointed by the national debate triggered by the incident, which has drawn criticism from the president on down to local sports radio hosts.
 
Gates has demanded an apology from Sgt. James Crowley, who had responded to the home near Harvard University last week to investigate a report of a burglary and demanded the scholar show him identification. Police say Gates at first refused and then accused the officer of racism.
 
Gates said Crowley walked into his home without his permission and only arrested him as the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant's name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.
 
Crowley said Wednesday that he won't apologize. The charge of disorderly conduct against Gates was dropped Tuesday.
 
President Barack Obama, during a prime-time news conference Wednesday, said he didn't know what role race played in the incident but added that police in Cambridge, a city outside Boston, "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates even after he offered proof that he was in his own home.
 
"I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry," Obama said. "Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three -- what I think we know separate and apart from this incident -- is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that's just a fact."
 
He said federal officials need to continue working with local law enforcement "to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias."
 
Crowley said he's grateful he has the support of his police force. He said he's not worried about any possible disciplinary action.
 
"There will be no apology," he said outside his home Wednesday.
 
Cambridge police and the police officers' union have declined to comment.
 
But there was plenty of blame being spread around by the public, through talk shows, blogs, newspaper online forums and watercooler chats. Even the hosts of a sports radio show in Boston spent much of Wednesday morning faulting Gates.
 
Gov. Deval Patrick, who is black, said he was troubled and upset over the incident. Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons, who also is black, has said she spoke with Gates and apologized on behalf of the city, and a statement from the city called the July 16 incident "regrettable and unfortunate."
 
Gates said he was "outraged" by the arrest.
 
"This isn't about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America," Gates said.
 
He said the incident made him realize how vulnerable poor people and minorities are "to capricious forces like a rogue policeman, and this man clearly was a rogue policeman."
 
Police supporters charge that Gates, director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was responsible for his own arrest by overreacting.
 
Gates' supporters cite Boston's history as a city plagued by racism as an underlying reason why this could still happen to an esteemed scholar, at midday, in his own home.
 
"That stain on this city -- as far as persons of color are concerned -- is a real one," television and radio commentator Callie Crossley said.
 
Black students and professors at Harvard have complained for years about racial profiling by Cambridge and campus police. Harvard commissioned an independent committee last year to examine the university's race relations after campus police confronted a young black man who was using tools to remove a bike lock. The man worked at Harvard and owned the bike.
 
Richard Weinblatt, director of the Institute for Public Safety at Central Ohio Technical College, said the police sergeant was responsible for defusing the situation once he realized Gates was the lawful occupant. It is not against the law to yell at police, especially in a home, as long as that behavior does not affect an investigation, he said.
 
"That is part of being a police officer in a democratic society," Weinblatt said. "The point is that the police sergeant needs to be the bigger person, take the higher road, be more professional."
 
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Associated Press writer Melissa Trujillo and Denise Lavoie in Boston contributed to this report.