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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cambridge Police

I have been thinking for a few days about the Gates incident, trying to decide if I wanted to comment.  I am somewhat astounded at the number of people who are willing to be triers of fact on pretty sketchy evidence; my take on the world is more things like this arise out of fear, miscommunication, confusion, pride, and escalation than racism or bad intent.  In short, we all get a chance in our lives to do something stupid - whether it's in public or at the wrong time is a matter of luck.  My charitable interpretation is that everybody would prefer to take something back.

What I really wanted to comment about, however, was my unrelated experiences with the Cambridge Police Department.  Cambridge is one of the densest cities in the U.S. - it's very diverse economically and racially, and there is far less correlation between neighborhoods on those indicia than any place we've ever lived.  We live on a street off Porter Square that has expensive private housing, public housing, low income housing, and a hybrid "co-housing" (which is a kind of cross between a really nice condo and a kibbutz).  It is a semi-urban environment.  You don't know who all your neighbors are.  There are problems from time to time that are typical of cities - property crime (our house was robbed last year and we were unimpressed with the reaction of the detectives), drugs, etc.  Near the end of last year, there were two incidents of muggings on our street (one alleged perp was white, one alleged perp was black - it was equal opportunity street crime), and several of us began organizing a street association.  We had wonderful support from the Public Affairs Department of the Cambridge Police, the neighborhood sergeants and officers, and Commissioner Robert Haas himself, who has showed up at every event, including our "health and safety walk," in which about 50 neighbors did an inspection of dark areas, broken lights, and other safety issues.

Neither I nor anybody else is going to be able to make credible generalizations about individuals on the force, but on far more solid evidence than has come to fore on this incident, I have the impression that Commissioner Haas espouses a progressive kind of leadership that emphasizes a solid relationship between the department and citizens who want to take some responsibility for their own well-being.  That's not to excuse an officer who made a poor judgment (I suspect) about not just walking away from somebody who sounds like he was very agitated but not dangerous, nor does it minimize the real concerns about the presumptions black men have to face every day, but I just wanted to put in an unsolicited plug for the Cambridge Police Department on my little shred of evidence.

[Ed. note by DM: I took the liberty of deleting the anon comments in the thread below. It became a bit of a train wreck, as one of my former students noted; I apologize in advance for the fact that the comment thread now might be a little disjointed. If there's a desire to leave signed comments, please feel free to do so in a way consistent with our comment policy.]

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 23, 2009 at 08:10 AM in Deliberation and voices | Permalink


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I am working at my desk in Cambridge and JUST witnessed a (white) Cambridge police office abusing a (white) man in his early 60s through my open window, about 8 meters away. The man was stopped for some minor traffic violation and told the officer it was the first ticket he's ever had in his life. The Cambridge police officer kept asking him questions them cutting him off and yelled insults at him as the man was trying to tell his side of the story. The exchange ended when the old man shook his head and drove away but not before the police officer shouted after him that he was a 'moron'. So it's not just black people who get abused by the Cambridge police - they are total dicks to everyone!

The behaviour of the officer was unprofessional and shocking, to say the least. He was highly emotional and abusive and was unable to keep his cool in what was a very routine stop with a small older man. Clearly, the Cambridge police need a lesson in how to keep calm while on the job and not arrest old professors for sass talking and making 'yo mama' comments in their own home after proving their identity.

I tried to film this abusive interaction but couldn't figure out how to work the camera on my new phone!

Posted by: K. R. | Jul 30, 2009 4:53:36 PM

>>>BlackAnon- You seem to have forgotten the part where Crowley refused to provide his name and badge # to Gates, despite Gates' repeated requests. Why did Crowley refuse to give Gates his name and badge #? <<<

Gates said Crowley refused to state his name. Crowley stated he said his name as least twice. The fact that you present Mr. Gate's version of events as undisputed fact only revels your profound bias.

Posted by: John Eden | Jul 23, 2009 9:47:45 PM

According to the police report, Gates was arrested for yelling at the police in the middle of the afternoon from his front porch as they were leaving his house, within the earshot of 7 passers-by. I don't think saying the arrest was "stupid" based on just that information is much of a stretch.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jul 23, 2009 9:27:23 PM

NewLawProf, Steven--is it your view that Crowley should have discouraged Gates from coming outside? Barred him from coming out? I'm not sure what you mean by "baiting". Somehow Crowley was both to leave and to stay, or to leave and yet require Gates to stay behind, or something else.

How about this: Gates was merely rude when he launched a harangue against Crowley when he was indoors, but he was stupid to continue it after Crowley had left the residence? And his stupidity may have been criminal.

Posted by: Thomas | Jul 23, 2009 7:27:22 PM

Here is a link to the police report. As you will see, the officer himself says that he asked Prof. Gates to step out onto the porch, claiming (quite implausibly, in my opinion) that the acoustics in the house made it hard for him to use his radio. Of course, having already determined that Gates was the homeowner, there was no actual need for the officer to do anything but leave. The line about passers by being "surprised and alarmed" is also seriously suspect, if you have any experience decoding police reports.


Posted by: Steven Lubet | Jul 23, 2009 6:12:37 PM

Everybody (most people) wants to run to the cop’s defense, but I have had experiences with them (cops) and they scare the HELL out of me!

That cop suckered the proof. outside his home and then arrested him, the professor was lucky the cop did not beat the [email protected]"# out of him in the house, thats what they do. My only opinion is "The cops are a necessary EVIL"

Posted by: phillip | Jul 23, 2009 6:11:34 PM

"Racism today is often about internalized and implicit attitudes much more than the overt racism of yesteryear.

And sometimes it is a convenient weapon to use against someone."

yes it is convenient for Professor Gates to use it as his excuse for his Behavior. If he had just complied with the officer instead of refusing then this whole incident would have taken a different direction.

Next time you get stopped try refusing to show your ID and see what happens.


Posted by: billy b | Jul 23, 2009 6:09:45 PM

"Thus, when the officer repeatedly insisted that Prof. Gates step outside, it blatantly shows that the officer wanted the tirade to occur outside the curtilege of the home, permitting an arrest for DisCon. The officer knew that until Prof. Gates stepped outside, he couldn't put him in cuffs."

It appears that Gates reported that: "the white officer 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."

In addition, it appears that the cop in this instance is an expert in racial profiling, and teaches classes in it. Perhaps the arrest was out of anger on the cop's part, and for that, there should be a review and maybe discipline, but why presume racism?

Posted by: Jonathan | Jul 23, 2009 4:48:58 PM

As someone who served as an ADA, albeit for a short time, under District Attorney Leone in the Middlesex DA's office, I disagree with, and find totally without evidence, the claim by the previous commenter that Leone was influenced in his decision whether or not to prosecute by "the political nightmare" that he may or may not have been facing. Nothing in my experience with him suggests that Leone is influenced in his decision making by anything but the facts of the particular case.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jul 23, 2009 1:57:37 PM

Re: the president's comment, I tend to be a supporter of Mr. Obama, but I'm disappointed in his choice of words ("stupidly"). It lowers the level of discourse and seems akin to conservative talk-radio's rabid and polarizing rhetoric. Also, it squandered an opportunity for the president to express, as he did in the rest of his comment on the matter, his opposition to the police tactics in this situation. While this could have been one of the first times the office of the president officially and strongly condemned subtle (but no less insipid) profiling, the comment instead will be remembered only for the name-calling sound bite.

Also, Jeff, I disagree with your claim that this incident did not arise out of bad intent. What the media is ignoring is the fact that the officer's actions, by means of baiting Prof. Gates out of the home, show the officer's malevolent intent. Disorderly Conduct, in Mass., requires that the accused be "in public." Thus, when the officer repeatedly insisted that Prof. Gates step outside, it blatantly shows that the officer wanted the tirade to occur outside the curtilege of the home, permitting an arrest for DisCon. The officer knew that until Prof. Gates stepped outside, he couldn't put him in cuffs. It was this fact, along with the political nightmare facing first-term Middlesex DA, Gerry Leone, that led to the decision to nolle prosse.

Was this baiting due to the officer's latent racism? Was it based more on the class dynamics (i.e. blue collar cop vs. elite Ivy Leaguer)? Or, was it just the urge to one-up a belligerent hot-head? We don't know, and we can't rule out either option or a combination of them. But, we most certainly can conclude that there was bad intent involved.

Posted by: NewLawProf | Jul 23, 2009 1:33:19 PM

Really? I thought the President hit it about right (even if he had his facts wrong on whether Professor Gates was locked out originally and had to break in) when he called the police action "stupid." Whether the police officer was angered by Gate's race, or the fact that Gates spoke back to him (which can get even a white middle aged guy in trouble), arresting the man he now knew to be the lawful resident of the house and a Harvard professor for the "crime" of disrespecting a cop was both a terrible use of public authority and politically incredibly stupid (especially if the department has the kind of community orientation Jeffrey suggests).

Posted by: Jonathan Simon | Jul 23, 2009 12:26:01 PM

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