Review of Harvard Scholar's Arrest Cites Failure to Communicate

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Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., of Harvard U., was arrested at home on July 16, 2009; Sgt. James Crowley, of the Cambridge, Mass., police, is at rear right.
June 30, 2010

A new review of the arrest of a prominent scholar in black studies at his own home last July blames the incident on "failed communications" between the police officer and the scholar.

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University, triggered a national controversy about race relations because Mr. Gates, is African-American and the arresting officer is white. The review panel, convened by the police department of Cambridge, Mass., and made up of experts in criminal justice, law, community relations, and conflict resolution, goes on to suggest dialogue to be used in such situations to keep them from spinning out of control.

The review, released on Wednesday, covers the arrest of Mr. Gates by a police sergeant, James Crowley, at Mr. Gates's home while the officer was investigating a report of a break-in there. The arresting charge of disorderly conduct against Mr. Gates was quickly dropped. Yet the controversy over the arrest intensified when President Obama, a friend of the professor's, publicly rebuked the police officer.

In many instances, the new report reads like a therapy manual, calling the case a "textbook example" of a police officer and community member failing to cooperate "toward the common goal of a positive encounter." The review committee suggests that the event escalated when the two men, who both later said they were afraid at the time, were unable to articulate their positions.

"If, on the other hand, both men had shared responsibility for understanding each other and communicating openly, the outcome could have been better," the committee writes.

The report suggests the situation could have been peacefully resolved if Sergeant Crowley had said the following: "If I appeared brusque earlier, it's because I needed to be cautious about how I approached you ... I can understand why you might not have understood my position."

"And from Crowley's point of view," the report continues, "the incident might have been defused if Gates had said, 'Yes, officer, here is my ID and I will provide any information you need.'"

The incident was "defused" in the national media spotlight when President Obama invited both men to the White House for a beer, and they accepted.

The new report does not, however, defuse it in the mind of Mr. Gates's lawyer, according to a report in The Boston Herald. Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, told the newspaper that while the report was thoughtful, it shifted too much responsibility onto Mr. Gates. For instance, Mr. Ogletree noted that his client had shown Sergeant Crowley his Harvard University identification and his Massachusetts driver's license but was arrested anyway.