Is it racial profiling when a police officer responds to a 9-1-1 call from a citizen reporting suspected criminal activity? According to a well-known Harvard University professor, it is.
By now, everyone has heard or seen the news coverage of the July 16 arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley. And just about everyone, including the U.S. chief law enforcement officer, has weighed in on whether or not the sergeant acted properly. The same day, as the facts were still murky, President Barack Obama, during a nationally televised news conference on health-care reform, said he believed the Cambridge police acted stupidly.
Since when is it necessary for a president to comment on such mundane police activity? Certainly, there were other calls of suspected criminal activity occurring all across America at the same time Sgt. Crowley made that fateful decision to voluntarily respond to the 9-1-1 call. What made this seemingly innocuous incident seem so important to warrant a comment about it on national television? Was it because the purported offender was a well-respected professor? Was it because the reported incident occurred in Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard? Was it because the so-called suspect was a personal friend of the president? Or was it because the possible wrongdoer was black? The answers to these questions will never be known for sure.
Whatever the reason, the allegations of racial profiling and the president s comments stoked a fire that s been smoldering in this country for many decades. The fact that the incident was sensationalized by the media further polarized law enforcement supporters and civil rights advocates and added more fuel to an old fire.
The incident struck a nerve with me, and the more news coverage on the event I heard, the angrier I became. When I heard the president s comments, I lost it. However, I held off on writing this article until I had learned the facts surrounding Gates arrest and let my emotions subside. I read many editorials and listened to televised news programs discussing the incident. Following is my take.
President Obama stated that this incident is a teachable moment. Seems to me, he, along with his fellow Americans, have yet to learn anything from it. Indeed, this case isn t about racial profiling; it s about an officer simply doing his job and the lack of respect by the person being investigated. Since when did it become acceptable for any citizen, regardless of their race, to argue or taunt a uniformed police officer when the officer is investigating a 9-1-1 call?
According to Sgt. Crowley s report, when he met with the 9-1-1 caller, she told him that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of the residence in question. She told him that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door, as if he was trying to force entry.
Sgt. Crowley also reported: As I turned and faced the door, I could see an older black male standing in the foyer [of the residence] ... I asked if [Gates] would step out onto the porch and speak with me. He replied no I will not. [Gates] then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was Sgt. Crowley from the Cambridge Police and that I was investigating a report of a break in [sic] progress at the residence. While I was making this statement, Gates opened the front door and exclaimed, Why, because I m a black man in America?
... While yelling, he ... accused me of being a racist officer. I assured Gates that I was responding to a citizen s call to the Cambridge Police and that the caller was outside as we spoke. [Gates picked up a cordless phone and dialed] ... Gates was telling the person on the other end of the call that he was dealing with a racist police officer in his home. Gates then turned to me and told me that I had no idea who I was messing with and that I had not heard the last of it. While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me. I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification so that I could verify that he resided [at that location] and so that I could radio my findings to ECC. Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification but then did supply me with a Harvard University identification card. ... I radioed my findings to ECC ... and prepared to leave. Gates again asked for my name, which I began to provide. Gates began to yell over my spoken words by accusing me of being a racist police officer and leveling threats that he wasn t someone to mess with. I told Gates that I was leaving his residence and that if he had any other questions regarding the matter, I would speak with him outside.
Eventually, Sgt. Crowley did leave the residence, informing Gates again that he d speak to him outside. Gates responded, Ya, I ll speak with your mama outside. Only after a crowd of people began to gather outside the residence and after he warned Gates to discontinue his disorderly behavior did Sgt. Crowley arrest Gates for disorderly conduct.
Not Racial Profiling
How can any tax-paying citizen quarrel with the fact that Sgt. Crowley and other Cambridge police officers responded to a 9-1-1 call of a possible break-in of Gates residence? As it turns out, the 9-1-1 call never identified the possible offenders by race until being prompted by the dispatcher. And, even then, the caller described the individuals as possibly being Hispanic, not black.
Nonetheless, this incident fails to come close to racial profiling. Instead, this is a classic example of how police work is done: Citizen calls police for help. Police respond. Someone needs to explain this to both Gates and President Obama.
President Obama, in commenting about the incident, admitted he didn t know all the facts and the role that race played in the events. Even so, he went on to say, I think it s fair to say, number one, that any one of us would be pretty angry. This comment had me scratching my head. Angry about what? Angry that a concerned citizen reported a possible break-in at a neighbor s home, that had apparently been broken into before? Angry that there s been some sort of mistake? Angry that the front door to the house was stuck once again? Angry that the police responded?
Whatever the source of anger, it doesn t excuse the behavior of Gates. Had Gates simply opened the door in response to Sgt. Crowley s investigation, I think we can all be certain that Sgt. Crowley would have simply gone on his way after verifying that Gates was a resident at the home. It s a straightforward issue one in which race need not play a part.
I ll give Gates this: He can feel that the incident was not fair or that he wasn t treated fairly. But isn t that life for all of us, regardless of our race?
I have two boys, ages 12 and 14. My husband and I have instilled in them what we have termed in our household the No. 1 Rule that is, life isn t fair. We ve taught them that if they can get past incidental unfairness, they ll be all the better for it. After all, the world is not perfect, mistakes will be made, and they will face disappointments in life. They ve often learned from the mistakes and disappointments and moved forward.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of the most recognizable black men in America, knows life isn t fair. He s also had a lesson or two in respect. Interviewed by Larry King on July 18, Powell said he had tried to meet someone at Reagan National Airport but nobody thought I could be the national security adviser to the president. I was just a black guy. His response to the incident was, You just suck it up. What are you going to do? It was a teaching point [for the individual]. He added, When you are faced with an officer trying to do his job and get to the bottom of something, this is not the time to get in an argument with him. I was taught that as a child. You don t argue with a police officer.
Powell stated, Do you get angry? Yes. Do you manifest that anger? Do you protest? Do you try to get things fixed? But it s the better course of action to try and take it easy and don t let your anger make the current situation worse.
For Sgt. Crowley s complete arrest report, download the pdf that is attached at the end of the article.