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Will Sgt. Crowley Apologize to Lucia Whalen?

July 30th, 2009 7 comments

Crowley has made a defiant point that he would not apologize for the arrest of Gates. He was almost certainly speaking in terms of apologizing to Gates for acting in a racist manner. Probably he would react the same way if asked to apologize for an unwarranted arrest.

The real question is, will he apologize to Lucia Whalen for falsely putting words in her mouth? In his police report, Crowley wrote:

As I reached the door, a female voice called out to me. I turned and looked in the direction of the voice and observed a white female, later identified as Lucia Whalen. Whalen, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of the residence, held a wireless telephone in her hand and told me that it was she who called. She went on to tell me that the observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch of 17 Ware street. She told me 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. Since I was the only police officer on location and had my back to the door as I spoke with her, I asked that she wait for other responding officers while I investigated further.

Whalen today claims that she never told him that; that instead, she simply said, “I was the 911 caller,” to which Crowley responded by pointing at her and saying, “Stay right there.”

One might call this a case of “he said, she said,” except for the rather significant example of the 911 call in which Whalen specifically mentions seeing luggage, suspects that the men might live in the house and not be intruders, and refuses to identify either as black, guessing instead that one might be Hispanic and she couldn’t see the other one. This is solid, being recorded on the 911 call. Which means that it is pretty much certain that Whalen did not, seconds later, change her story when she met Crowley. Of the two reports, Whalen’s is infinitely more credible.

This in turn means that Crowley simply fabricated that part of the police report. “Remembered wrongly” could be applied, but taking “I was the 911 caller” and translating it into a conversation which never took place in which Whalen identified “two black males with backpacks” is quite the case of remembering wrongly.

Whatever the case, and whatever Crowley’s intentions, one thing is crystal clear: Crowley’s false report made Whalen look very bad, even possibly racist, and being the public record which most people gave ultimate credence to, it amounted to libel against her. Whalen did not fail to see the luggage, she did not fail to consider that they might live there, she did not fail to see that one had gained entry before force was used, she did not report backpacks that weren’t there, she did not even make certain statements about race, however accurate they may have been to make. But by making the public claim that Whalen reported what was seen as “two black males with backpacks” forcing entry into a house when such was clearly not the case, Crowley made Whalen look like a borderline racist, for which she received a great deal of unjust criticism.

So: will Crowley apologize to Whalen for issuing a bad police report and making Whalen look bad?

Somehow I think not. Crowley does not strike me as the kind of guy who admits a mistake on the job, especially when his reputation is at stake. But then again, this tends to be par for the course with police and prosecutors in any case.

Categories: Race, Social Issues Tags:

Not Looking Good for Gates Crowley

July 28th, 2009 5 comments

The Cambridge police released the 911 call and the tapes of the police radio, and things don’t look all that spiffy for the story of Sgt. Crowley. They do not come close to proving Gates was right, but two key elements suggest that Crowley might actually have racially colored the situation and strongly suggest that he was not being accurate in his police report.

The first element is that Crowley strongly mischaracterized the initial report by Gates’ neighbor, Lucia Whalen. Whalen has received a good deal of criticism because everyone accepted Crowley’s report, in which he claims Whalen describes the two men at Gates’ house as “two black males with backpacks.” In fact, in her 9/11 call (mp3, transcript), Whalen did not initially give the race of the two men, and when asked, said that one of them “looked kind of Hispanic but I’m not really sure,” and reported that she did not get a look at the other one at all. Whalen also specifically mentioned seeing luggage.

Now, this was what Whalen said on the 911 tape, and Crowley got his information directly from Whalen on the street, which was not recorded. But to imagine that “two men with suitcases who might live there and one seems Hispanic and I didn’t see the other one at all” would within a minute or so transform into “two black males with backpacks” is not credible. Clearly, either Crowley made up that part or he radically misunderstood what Crowley told him. And that suggests that there actually was racial bias on Crowley’s part, if he contributed both “black” and “backpacks” in place of “unsure” and “suitcases.” Considering Whalen’s 9/11 call, it seems unlikely that she would even mention race at all unless asked by Crowley, in which she would have given the same answer as the 9/11 call. So “black” seems to have been either assumed by Crowley, or else later inserted by him after he saw the men–either way, his police report was false.

The second element comes from Crowley’s transmissions (mp3, transcript), which seem to contradict what he wrote in his police report. In his report, Crowley wrote:

I again told Gates that I would speak with him outside. My reason for wanting to leave the residence was that Gates was yelling very loud and the acoustics of the kitchen and foyer were making it difficult for me to transmit pertinent information to ECC or other responding units.

This is belied by the radio transmission, in which Crowley had no transmissions which were made unclear by Gates’ alleged “yelling.” In the sections of the recordings of the police radio coming from Crowley, you can hear Gates a little in the background, but nothing more than would be expected of a normal conversation. Listen to this file (mp3) with only Crowley’s transmissions:

While Crowley could have been speaking of yelling that happened which prevented him from even trying to make the calls at all, that is certainly not supported; in the transmissions he makes, there is silence for most of the transmissions–not what would be the case if Gates were yelling so loudly and so often that Gates was forced to leave the house. Instead, it now seems far more likely that Crowley actually left the house in an attempt to draw Gates outside so that he could arrest him.

In this case, the media in general has given Crowley the complete benefit of the doubt and Gates almost none on the basis of believing police officers first and arrest subjects last. However, it now seems that this bias was not correct, and Crowley’s report is now seriously in doubt.

Categories: Law, Race, Social Issues Tags:

Was Crowley Racist? Probably Not. But That’s Not What Obama Was Talking About.

July 24th, 2009 5 comments

A lot of the controversy over the Gates arrest is now focused on racism. And the other day, when asked about the situation, Obama–clearly admitting that he was biased and did not have all the facts–suggested that the arrest was “stupid.” The problem is, conservatives–as well as a good chunk of the mainstream media–have now made this about Obama attacking the police for racism, when that is not even close to what was the case.

Here is Obama’s original statement:

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I’m sure there’s some exchange of words. But my understanding is — is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house, and at that point he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

Now, I’ve — I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; 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 enforcing disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

Note that while race is mentioned here, Obama (1) does not refer to the arrest as stupid in any way related to race, and (2) makes no claim that actual racism was involved–he actually says “separate and apart from this incident” there is a history of racism, referring to either why Gates reacted as he did, or that sensitivity must be practiced by all parties when race even might be an issue, or both.

The result? The narrative now is that Obama’s remark was somehow an accusation of racism, and an attack on an honest, hard-working cop. One example of how the story is being reported:

Crowley’s account came on a day of dizzying debate over his actions, a furor that was touched off by President Barack Obama’s remarks at a news conference Wednesday night, when he said the police had “acted stupidly” and linked Gates’ arrest to the nation’s long history of racial profiling.

“Linked” being the key word. In a very loose sense, it’s true, but the use of that word implies that Obama accused the officer in some sense of racism–when Obama went to great lengths to avoid saying exactly that. Can you honestly say that Obama “linked Gates’ arrest to … racial profiling” when Obama said “separate and apart from this incident” there is a history of racial profiling? And he was right in that there is a history of racial profiling.

It’s a shame, because the real issue of importance here is not Obama, and not even racial profiling, but rather “contempt of cop” arrests–the “stupid” act that Obama referred to. And Obama was 100% right–it was a stupid arrest, almost certainly a case of a cop getting annoyed at someone and abusing his power to slap that person down.

But what about racism? Was is in fact involved?

While I strongly disagree with the arrest, I don’t think that the facts much support the idea that Crowley himself was racist. It’s possible that he made racially biased assumptions, but far from certain, and Crowley deserves the benefit of the doubt on this.

The initial situation that Crowley was put into was unavoidable: he received a call reporting a break-in, so naturally he had to investigate. He could not just say to himself, “Hmm, there’s an older gentleman inside, he’s probably the owner, I’ll just go away.” He had to check and find out who Gates was. Nothing wrong there.

What Gates identifies as racism is less of a clear-cut situation: that Crowley asked Gates to step out onto the front porch. Apparently, it is much more difficult for an officer to make an arrest if the individual is indoors rather than out; a policeman asking someone to step outside could be a prelude to an arrest. And if Crowley was intending to arrest Gates with no questions asked, then that would have been far more likely a case of racism–it is perhaps not as likely that a police officer would arrest a 58-year-old white person using a cane, in that situation, in such a fashion.

But this is where benefit of the doubt comes in: perhaps Crowley was simply asking Gates to step outside just to be on the safe side, allowing himself more options should the situation take a bad turn. We can’t know what Crowley’s actual intent there was, and so cannot make the assumption that Crowley was being racist–especially since it appears that he did not do anything after that which appeared significantly out of order–until the actual arrest, that is.

Gates, however, made that assumption right off the bat, but there was a contributing factor: that the call had been made at all. This was not Crowley’s fault, of course; the neighbor may have over-reacted. She saw a man forcing open a door–but she also noticed two men. This is critical. To see two men, she had to either see Gates before he entered the house, in which case she would have seen him go around and enter the house easily before the forced front-door entry occurred, or she had to see Gates inside the house when the door was forced open. Neither make sense in the context of an unlawful break-in.

The fact that the neighbor reported men with “backpacks” casts further suspicion: neither man was wearing a backpack–instead, they were dressed in suits, carrying luggage. Where did she get backpacks from, and how did she miss the suitcases? Seeing two men dressed in suits with luggage is a far cry from two men with backpacks; one suggests a returning resident, the other suggests young thugs. It is easy to question whether the neighbor would have reported things differently had she seen two white men in suits, one with greying hair and a cane, in the same situation.

So Gates had returned home in a context that did not match any reasonable expectation of a break-in, and yet moments later police come and act like he may be an intruder. The real turning point was Crowley’s request that Gates step outside, which Gates recognized as a possible prelude to an arrest. With these two facts–an accusation of a black man in an upscale white neighborhood breaking into his own home, and the likelihood that the police officer would simply arrest him right off the bat–Gates forms a new context, and from that point on, everything he sees is colored by it.

Race may very well have played a part in setting up the situation–but it is less than perfectly clear. The neighbor could have just seen things wrong and maybe race had nothing to do with it; the officer could have just been following procedure and might not have treated Gates differently than anyone else. But in the overall context, Gates did have reason to believe that race was involved–though he certainly over-reacted, even if you don’t take the officer’s account at full face value.

What is likely the case is that the neighbor saw the forced entry, and as witnesses are wont to do, painted in details that weren’t there–not an act of overt racism, but more than likely unconscious bias, giving us backpacks instead of suits and luggage, and ignoring the overall context where Gates was already indoors. The policeman came and made what he considered a by-the-book encounter; though he may have intended to act inappropriately and would have arrested Gates right off, we have to assume that he just wanted Gates outside to make the situation easier to deal with. But by that point, Gates had received one too many signals that he was being treated in a racist manner, did not give benefit of the doubt, and started making accusations–accusations that Crowley probably was strongly offended by. The main business of identifying the owner done, Crowley then makes the next big mistake: by wildly overreacting to an angry man who believed he had good reason to be upset, and arresting Gates on trumped-up charges.

That’s the main issue in the end. While actual racism may have played a small, contributory role in setting this up, it was the early taking of offense by both gates and Crowley which escalated things, and eventually Crowley was most at fault, using his authority to satisfy his personal grievance.

And that was the only part of this which was way over the line: the contempt-of-cop arrest.

Obama’s comment did not accuse the cop of racism, but because the media is playing it that way, it’s now about the stuck-up Harvard elitist and his reverse-racist pal in the Oval Office dumping on an honest, hard working cop by labeling him as a racist. Right-wing sites are already ginning up conspiracy theories, like the Boston Globe removing the police report from their web site because it was too embarrassing for Gates, or because it contradicted the paper’s liberal-media agenda to make Gates look like a victim–as if the police report is gospel or something.

So much for any attention on the abusive practice of “contempt of cop” arrests.

By the way, a comment just filed in the previous post sheds new light on why Crowley worded his police report so oddly. From Massachusetts state law, two of the four identifying qualities of what constitutes “disorderly conduct”:

“with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm

“engages in fighting or threatening, violent or tumultuous behavior”

Then, from Crowley’s report:

Due to the tumultuous manner Gates had exhibited in his residence as well as his continued tumultuous behavior outside the residence, in view of the public, I warned Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Gates ignored my warning and continued to yell, which drew the attention of both the police officers and citizens, who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates’s outburst.

It seems pretty clear that Gates was very intentionally cribbing language from the state code so as to justify the arrest. These terms raised flags–note that my post pays special attention to these terms, as they stood out as rather unusual and unlikely. Now we know why: Crowley had to justify the arrest. Whether this is regular practice or not, it seems to cast doubt on the accuracy of what he claimed, as if it were tailor-made to fit the law, as opposed to being a true and objective account of what actually happened.

Categories: "Liberal" Media, Law, Race, Social Issues Tags:

Debate Notes

October 17th, 2012 8 comments

Neither candidate answered the student’s question about finding a job; they took it as an opportunity to lay down their base arguments.

This is much more like the Obama we should have seen last time. Minimal hemming and hawing, more organized, understandable answers. He sounds a bit too much like someone who is laying down the campaign talking points—but he’s got energy, and, more importantly, he’s answering Romney’s BS.

Obama finally came around to answering both questions: “That’s gonna get Jeremy a job, that’ll lower the price of gas.” I think that’s important; both were going too high about policy and attack points, Obama came down and remembered that the audience had actually asked a couple of questions and wanted more relevant answers.

Romney just lied about oil production—again!

Good, Obama at least mentioned it.

Obama, look at the guy sometimes.

Wow, Romney handed over the mic!

Hah—Obama is owning the stage, rolling over Mitt.

Ooohh. Mitt just used the gas price lie—the price fell because of the recession. Liar.

Good! Obama gives the right answer.

Romney steamrolling the moderator, stealing stage time. I hope they dock him for that—they probably won’t.

His 20% tax cut, and specifics on deductions—the question has come directly. What will Romney answer?

Romney: I want a middle class tax cut—ignore the fact that most of the money goes to the rich. He’s now sailing into the middle class crap. Deductions: I will limit deductions particularly for wealthy people (emphasis mine, a key weasel). Then he uses a bogus “rich will continue to pay 60% figure.”

THAT’s his dodge: he seems to be saying that he won’t lower taxes for the rich, what he’s ACTUALLY saying his he won’t reduce their SHARE. NOT the same thing—and probably a lie.

Then he lies by making it sound like he won’t hurt the middle class, and somehow the deficit won’t explode. Obama should start with: the math won’t work.

OK. Obama is not answering Romney’s tax lie up front, but he is making the point that he DID cut taxes, and contrasting how their approach to the rich will work. However, he should point out Romney’s BS which made him sound like he’s not going to lower taxes on the wealthy by 20%.

“I’m not looking to cut taxes for rich people.” Bull! He wants to cut their taxes by 20% AND keep all their previous cuts under the Bush tax cuts!

Obama HAS to point this out.

Crowley just threw Obama a softball—and he missed the main point! Romney WANTS TO GIVE THE RICH A 20% TAX CUT. He is not saying that directly. Gah, Obama, LEAD with that!

Crowley cut off Romney’s obvious BS line about how “six studies” support him. So, Romney is now evading answering the key questions: how will you pay for it, and how will you pay for it if it doesn’t add up.

Romney simply says “it adds up,” and then launches into an attack—no specifics.

Then he gets to deductions—and more BS. He gets cut off, thank god.

Obama gets the equal pay for women question. He starts with personal stories. I presume he’ll mention Ledbetter. Am interested in how he’ll go beyond that…

OK, there’s Ledbetter. … but it seems that he doesn’t have anyplace to go after Ledbetter, except for generalities—Pell Grants, for example. Well, that won’t equalize pay. His only saving grace here is that Romney has even less than that. Disappointing, I’d expect more.

Romney, as predicted, has less. He put more women on a board. Wow, that’s solved it. After that, platitudes, then using extremes of certain stats to attack Obama and make it sound like he’ll be doing something on the topic. Obama was not strong here, but Ledbetter trumps everything Romney has just said.

Obama brought health care into it, contraceptive coverage. Good move. OK, health care was a point, and child care credits. Small stuff, but at least that’s in there.

New question: Undecided unimpressed with lack of movement, knows however that Bush caused most problems and wants to know how Romney is different.

Romney complains, whines, looks like he doesn’t understand the rules. Weak.

Then he gets in a few words, a quick lie about the health care issue.

His differences with Bush: really, energy and cracking down on China? Seriously? Balanced Budget? Bush said he’d do that too. Romney’s plan will bust the budget from day one.

Then small businesses—how is that different from Bush? Now he has segued not into differences with Bush but differences with Obama. “Small businesses” were just as much a sham used by Bush; this is a place where Romney is identical. Using the mythical small businessman as a false front.

Obama did not address the small business sham. But he did point out that Romney is even more extreme.

Tough question from an African-American voter: things are tough, I’m disappointed.

Obama’s answer is excellent: he’s giving a list of the very real accomplishments he’s done. But he also recognizes that people are hurting and has a plan for helping the rest. Examples: using funds from ending wars to build infrastructure and jobs, gearing up clean power for better efficiency and growing good jobs.

Now he’s contrasting with Romney: he’s going to tear these things down, or just do the same, and help the rich.

Romney: “I think you know better.” Very cutting remark. Brings out the 5.4%. Good attack (even if it lacks specifics about how Republicans blocked that).

“Double the deficit” lie!! Obama better jump on that.

Granted that Romney’s list is very painful and effective—it’s also 80% BS.

Crowley is fairly good on cutting off the candidates; I think both Obama and Romney have been cut down in response time.

Romney on Immigration: have a good system, give green cards… to people with higher ed and top-level skills. I won’t give amnesty, will punish illegals, won’t grant driver licenses. Kids should have a pathway (but also points out that it might require something like military service—if that’s the best path, that’s a fail).

Obama: we need to fix immigration; I’ve done my best, asked Congress for the rest. Border patrol: really? You’re touting stopping illegals more? Next, tagging illegals who are criminals? I don’t think that’ll play well. He’s talking to whites, not Hispanics now. I guess he figures that’s the crowd he has to appease….

Wow: Romney said “no” to the moderator and went off on his own. He can’t bully Obama, so he goes back to bullying the moderator.

Romney is bearing down on the whole “filing papers” line. Don’t know about that. Was that a real thing, something that made a real difference?

I was wrong—Romney just pwned Obama. Spouted a lot of crap about Obama investing in the Caymans. Obama looked like he was squirming. Not good.

And now he’s riffing on high-hope rhetoric? No. He has to answer what was said. He should have come out immediately on how Republicans obstructed.

The Libyan security question.

Obama is taking the tough question—but is answering a different one, the aftermath, not the security request answer. Romney will probably eat this up and spend two minutes bashing Obama on a very weak and sensitive spot.

Sometimes the answer is, this stuff happens. Nobody is prescient, and sometimes the wrong decision is made at lower levels which the president cannot monitor. But Obama can’t say that.

Romney is almost visibly drooling at the prospect of taking Obama to task on this as if this were the biggest crisis in the world, so he can take even more political advantage of the tragedy. Acting like Obama was blasé in the face of it.

His attack is not as savage as I thought it could be, but Romney is scoring points.

“Apology tour,” and “Leading from behind.” Ass.

Crowley throws Obama a softball, noting Hillary’s “Janet Reno” statement. Obama picks it up and hits it hard. Faces Romney directly—

Wow. He’s hitting this hard taking Romney to task.

Romney lied: Crowley supported Obama’s true statement. Romney now looks like a loser.

He saves it a bit, but still does not come across well there. We’ll see what the post-game show says about who was more right on that.

The gun question. Nice. Obama: “I love guns” (paraphrase). But: guns bad. Personal story about gun crime victim. Conclusion: enforce laws we have; “share your belief” that military-grade weapons should not be available. Wants an assault weapons ban (really?), and other vague “interventions” behind the scenes. Nice, but way too soft. This is a weakness of Obama, not moving on real gun control legislation. Trying to straddle the fence.

Romney: I don’t support any new laws OR JACK BOOTED THUGS TAKING AWAY YOUR GUNS! Er, otherwise, I agree with Obama.

Both candidates go soft and run away from the topic. A wash.

Romney turns it into an attack using the “Fast and Furious” thing. Obama killed people! He’s hiding something! He’s arming drug lords!

More sparring on mud, more vague, high-minded rhetoric.

Oh, Romney is going to fix things with China, just by “labeling” them as a currency manipulator. As if nobody knows that now. Empty, vapid. Stupid. Might sound good, but people who know what’s what are laughing derisively now.

Segues into mythical over-regulation, how Obama has destroyed jobs by regulating people trying to hurt people.

Wow. Obama is not going after Romney on the childish naivety on his “I’ll label China” idiocy. He really should point out how weak that would make a president look.

Wait, here comes China: but Obama focuses more on outsourcing.

Currency: has improved because I have pushed. Did not call out Romney’s stpudity.

Apple gets a nod—for being an outsourcer. How do you get Apple to bring jobs back?

Romney: China’s a cheater! I’ll say so and fix everything!

Obama: Some jobs won’t come back. Instead, I want to chase better jobs coming back. Good answer.

Misperceptions about you? Romney attacks Obama for trying to say he doesn’t care, then tells everyone he’s a God-loving, caring man.

Obama: I believe in free enterprise. I believe in self-reliance, risk-takers, in fair shots. I believe in puppy dogs, and—oh, wait, sorry.

Both candidates are painting soft portraits of themselves, attacking the other.

Obama is closing on the 47%. Excellent. Great move. Good closing shot against Romney. I want to fight for true Americans, Romney thinks you’re a victim.

Here’s my final assessment.

Who won this debate? In one sense, I think Obama wins on points; not a clear knockout, or a TKO, but has made his points more clearly and has better answers the crowd wants. Romney fumbled at least twice.

But Obama will win more than just that because it is relative to his bad performance and subsequent free-fall. I suspect that his numbers will now jump.

Categories: Election 2012 Tags:


August 2nd, 2009 Comments off

Some of the remaining bits & pieces now being tabulated in the Gates arrest drama are the side players who got involved in it for various reasons. One that’s a bit scary involves a police officer, Justin Barrett, who sent a letter to Boston Globe writer Yvonne Abraham, in which he said this:

His first priority of effort should be to get off the phone and comply with the police, for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC [oleoresin caseinate aka pepper gas] deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.

Barrett also forwarded the letter (full text here) in an email to colleagues. When the inevitable fecal matter hit the fan, Barrett said of the letter, “I did not mean to offend anyone. The words were being used to characterize behavior, not describe anyone … I didn’t mean it in a racist way. I treat everyone with dignity and respect.” Later in the same email, he wrote to the female journalist:

You are a hot little bird with minimal experience in a harsh field. You are a fool. An infidel. You have no business writing for a US newspaper nevermind [sic] detailing and analyzing half truths. You should serve me coffee and donuts on Sunday morning.

Umm… Okay. “banana-eating jungle monkey” is not racist, and “hot little bird,” “infidel,” “fool,” and “you should serve me coffee and donuts” to a woman is treating her with “dignity and respect.” Gotcha.

Barrett described “jungle monkey” as a “poor choice of words,” and not racist, but he repeated the phrase four times, ending the letter with:


Certainly, adding “back to one’s roots” dismisses all speculation that it’s about race.

Hoo boy.

Let’s set aside the “jungle monkey” thing for a moment and look at the rest, shall we? Spraying someone in the face with pepper spray in their own home because they accuse you of being racist? That’s quite something right there. But a lot can be gleaned from the expression, “belligerent non-compliance.” That’s a strongly loaded phrase, in part because he’s likely quoting a commonly-used police expression. Now, if a police officer is acting in the line of duty to accomplish a task necessary to the safety of the public or themselves, and a citizen angrily refuses to comply with a direct order necessary to accomplish that task, then “belligerent non-compliance” is in order. But remember, Crowley arrested Gates after it was firmly established that Gates was a college professor in his own home, and there was no crime involved; already, the situation was confirmed to be completely free of risk or danger, and all you’re left with is one pissed-off old man on a cane.

In exactly what terms was Gates supposed to be compliant? “Compliance” suggests that he had been ordered to do something–well, he had been asked to show ID, and he did. That’s all. After that, there was nothing.

But the reason that “belligerent non-compliance” is somewhat scary here is that it subtly suggests more than just professional police work; it hints at a mindset, hopefully not shared by too many in uniform, that police are less civil servants and more civil masters. That a citizen is expected to comply with any police request in any way, with a smile, or else.

How many think in this way? Crowley felt this strongly enough that he arrested Gates. One can only imagine what Barrett would have done if he were the officer at the scene. What percent of all police officers would have done less or more than Crowley did? How pervasive is the natural expectation of meek compliance by the public?

Think of the atmosphere in which police serve, understand that they are people just like everyone else, and it becomes easier to understand how many could easily be lured into a mindset that is less than appealing. You belong to a fraternity charged with public safety; like doctors, the power of life and death in your hands can attract or lead to the mightiest of egos. You carry a gun, and in terms of authority, you are high on the totem pole in society. People fear and respect you just for wearing the uniform. You are given a certain deal of latitude to act on that authority, and you have the solid support of the entire police force, often the prosecutors as well, in case you step over a line. Your word is far more often respected than that of an ordinary citizen if there is a disagreement. Culturally, you might even feel elevated to the role of hero; certainly, the role of cop is exhaustively expressed in all forms of entertainment in a manner that speaks directly to the male sense of dominance and ego.

In recent comments, a visitor to this blog and I had a discussion about how this relates to customer relations in retail work, where workers dealing with customers have to deal with various kinds of people on a daily basis. Most are non-offensive, some are very agreeable, and some are disagreeable. People in these jobs tend to become aggravated by the disagreeable ones, and much time is spent with co-workers carping on how stupid and unreasonable they are, with the worker usually holding back great resentment while having to be outwardly respectful while being abused by them.

Now put that into the context of police work, where the situation is greatly exaggerated. The disagreeable customers are often armed, dangerous, or aggressive in some way; a good part of your job is to deal with the worst and least respectful elements of society, and it is likely very easy to see anyone acting disagreeably with you–including Harvard professors–to be part of that overall group. You are Authority. You carry a gun. You are to be respected and obeyed. And here’s some ass giving you lip, after you put your life on the line to protect him. He should be grateful.

This is likely not helped by the other end of the spectrum: the respect, fear, and even adulation others show to you. People who automatically show great deference, who will comply readily with your requests, with “thank you” and “please.” That plus the general respect, recently enhanced (especially since 9/11) that police share with firefighters and soldiers, as being the segment of society that keeps everyone secure and alive, boldly patriotic, heralded as heroes and you’d better not disagree.

Enough of this sinks in with enough people that it comes to the point where some start abusing that authority, even in small ways. Here you are protecting this guy’s home and he thinks he can accuse you of being racist? Let’s show him the error of his ways.

I’m sure that many if not most police officers would read this and laugh. But I am just as sure that some, perhaps many, would feel the expressions resonate. That there is an entitlement that goes with the job. That citizens had better respect and obey. Certainly that was the case with Barrett; think you can talk back to me, jungle monkey? Enjoy some pepper spray, boy. And you, lady, you think he’s in the right here? Well, serve me coffee and donuts, hot little bird. And don’t forget to do my laundry. With all due dignity and respect.

Hopefully, Barrett represents the worst and nowhere near the norm. But Crowley, who comes across as much more reasonable, still let himself step over the line when he arrested Gates. And these are not isolated cases.

We probably have no choice but to accept a certain amount of this; police are not supermen, they have to deal with an insane amount of crap, and that kind of authority cannot be expected to have zero effect. But neither should the situation be ignored or dismissed when it does become a problem. Crowley should have been disciplined for the arrest. Barrett was very rightly suspended, but only because he clearly went too far and posed a greater risk.

And, as a co-worker pointed out, all of this is an excellent example of how we are not the “post-racial society” that many have suggested exists.

Categories: Race, Social Issues Tags:

The Gates Arrest

July 23rd, 2009 9 comments

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was arrested at his home last Thursday. The facts which are not in contention: Gates and his driver, both black, arrived at his home and had trouble entering; the door was jammed, and Gates’ driver had to shove at it to get it to open. A neighbor called the police to report two black men with backpacks breaking into the house; a policeman arrived and asked Gates for identification. Gates showed an ID, and after some discussion in which Gates asked for the officer’s ID, the police officer left the house. Gates followed him outside, and the officer arrested him on charges of disorderly conduct.

Outside of those facts, the stories are–not to use too ironic a phrase–as different as black and white.

According to the arresting officer in the police report (PDF), Sgt. James Crowley, Gates yelled at the officer, alarming the neighbors, and thus warranting the arrest. He claimed that when he first met Gates, upon being asked, he immediately identified himself, stating that he was there to investigate a reported break-in. He claimed that Gates responded, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” Crowley wrote that after asking if anyone else was inside, Gates told him it was “none of his business” and accused him of being racist. He says he “assured” Gates he was responding to a legitimate crime report, but Gates made a phone call to someone, asking for the “chief,” and told someone over the phone that he was dealing with a “racist police officer.” He than asserted that Gates turned to him and said that Crowley “had no idea who I was ‘messing’ with and that I had not heard the last of it.”

Crowley then said that he was surprised that the legitimate owner of the home would act in such a fashion. He said that he asked Gates for ID, and that Gates refused, but later produced a Harvard I.D. card, which Crowley called in to verify. He claims that Gates asked his name again and that he started to reply, but Gates yelled another racist accusation at him before he could complete an answer. Crowley claimed that Gates again threatened that he was not to be “messed with,” and asked again for identification; Crowley claimed that he stated that he had identified himself twice and would now leave, and Gates could talk to him outside if he wanted. Crowley wrote in his report that Gates was yelling so loudly that he could not report anything using his radio, which is why he left the house. He then claims that Gates responded, “ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside!” Gates, he said, followed him outside and “continued tumultuous behavior .. in view of the public.” He held that outside, he warned Gates twice that he was becoming “disorderly,” and claims that bystanders “appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates’s outburst.” After ignoring repeated warnings, he then arrested Gates.

Gates tells the story differently. In an interview the other day, he claims that he was returning from China to his Cambridge residence provided by Harvard University. He said that his driver, dressed in a suit, helped him with several bags–no backpacks–up to the front door, but it was jammed, with a footprint on the door suggesting that someone may have tried to break in. He went around to the kitchen door, unlocked it, and came to the front door from the inside, but still could not open the door. To get the door open, his driver shouldered the door open, damaging the lock. He said he then called someone at Harvard to get the damage repaired.

At that time, Sgt. Crowley arrived. Gates says that he began by asking, “Officer, can I help you?” and that Crowley asked him to step out on the porch. Gates says that he got a bad feeling then–that the officer would not ask him out on to the porch just to talk to him. He claims that the officer informed him that he was responding to a 911 call about a break-in, to which Gates replied, “That’s ridiculous because this happens to be my house. And I’m a Harvard professor.” When asked to prove it, Gates says he provided both a Harvard ID and a drivers license. At this point, Gates says that Crowley asked another (undefined) question, but Gates instead started insisting that the officer provide his name and badge number, because he wanted to file a complaint–Gates explained that the officer did not act like a policeman usually would, asking if it was his house, but instead started by trying to draw Gates outside, and Gates felt that this is not how a white person would be treated.

Gates said that he asked the officer to identify himself three times, but the officer refused; Gates claims he said, “You’re not responding because I’m a black man, and you’re a white officer,” at which time Crowley turned to leave. Gates followed him out to the porch, where he said that at least a half dozen policemen had gathered, and demanded the ID of another officer there–at which point the officer turned around, said “Thank you for accommodating our request. You are under arrest,” and handcuffed him.

As for the yelling, Gates claims that the officer’s charge is ridiculous, in that Gates had contracted a “severe bronchial infection” in China and had not yet fully recovered, thus rendering him incapable of shouting as Crowley claimed.

You can see how greatly the account clash. Each presents himself as calm, reasonable, and measured, and the other as unreasonable. In such cases, it is safe to presume that the truth lies somewhere in between. The question is, where in between? Crowley paints Gates as being far more unreasonable than Gates paints Crowley. Crowley asserts that Gates, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, shouted, “ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside”; while that is not impossible, it does come across as incredibly unlikely, even if Gates were truly pissed off.

It would interesting to see what neighbors who witnessed the event would say about how Gates and the officer were acting outside–for example, was Gates in fact yelling loudly, and were the neighbors truly so “surprised and alarmed” that it warranted an arrest?

Short of that, one should ask if the officer’s reaction was warranted even if we take his word 100% and completely disregard Gates’ version of events. And I think that the answer to that is, clearly, the officer was out of line. Gates was, after all, the one being accused of breaking into his own home; while some people would be happy that police are on the job and assuring the security of one’s home from intruders, some people would not take it in that light. There’s no law saying you have to be grateful. And with the history in America of police and black people, one could at the very least understand how a black man might not be thrilled at being accused of breaking in to his own house.

But the deciding factor was not whether or not Gates was too ungrateful, but rather, was there cause to arrest him at all. Even if you had a severely pissed-off individual here, was he creating so difficult a situation that an arrest was necessary? Let’s face it–we’re talking about a 58-year-old man using a cane, and the worst that even Crowley claims that he’s doing is yelling. Is yelling on your front porch a crime, especially if there is a reason–whether you agree with it or not–for him to be so aggrieved?

What did Crowley feel would happen without the arrest? Did he think it would spiral into violence? While that might sound ridiculous, that is the prima facia reason that Crowley made–he made the arrest only after Gates’ “tumultuous” (dictionary definition: making a loud, confused noise; uproarious) yelling, which “surprised and alarmed” his neighbors. Crowley justifies the arrest by making it seem that Gates was acting in a way that was disruptive to some damaging degree.

I wasn’t there, of course, but from reading the accounts, I cannot possibly see this as being the case.

Instead, what appears to have happened is that Crowley arrested Gates for what is commonly referred to as “Contempt of Cop.” This is when a police officer, in his opinion, finds a citizen to be sufficiently disrespectful, and so arrests the citizen on a trumped-up charge–usually disorderly conduct or obstructing a police officer. The idea is to arrest the person, humiliate them in public, have them go through the process of being booked, and jail them overnight, fully intending all along to drop the charges and release them. Kind of an instant punishment that avoids any oversight or regulation. We can cause you severe humiliation, discomfort, and inconvenience, and jail you for a day, just because we want to.

This practice has some rather obvious problems, the greatest being potential abuse. Since the offense is completely dependent on the officer’s subjective, emotional judgment, it essentially becomes a license to put innocent people through an ordeal for not being respectful to a police officer. There are situations where you can easily imagine this to be justified, but Gates’ case does not even come close–as one would expect that any justified use of this practice should involve more than just offending the police officer.

One problem is that, in Seattle at least, it was found that blacks were eight times as likely to be arrested in this way than whites. This aspect is very likely to have an impact on how we see the Gates arrest–and since “contempt of cop” depends on a trumped-up charge, it follows that the police report will be prejudiced to justify the arrest, explaining Crowley’s implausible “neighbors were alarmed” rationale.

If police are to use “contempt of cop” at all–if police hold that they have to arrest people sometimes for bad behavior–then there should be an actual law drawn up for such circumstances. Otherwise, it is an unconstitutional assault on the citizen. That the police do this with full intent to drop the charges is simply an end-run around the Constitution. The fact that courts dismiss charges that are not dropped hint that such contempt-of-cop laws are not passed because they would not be constitutional.

So what we have is an abuse of police power. No one should be arrested for simply offending a police officer’s feelings.

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