• August 30, 2015

Review of Harvard Scholar's Arrest Cites Failure to Communicate

Race and Reality in a Front-Porch Encounter 1

AP Images

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.

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close Race and Reality in a Front-Porch Encounter 1

AP Images

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.

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.


1. robear - June 30, 2010 at 04:28 pm

Mr. Ogletree, the lawyer, has it right. Once Professor Gates' had provided his identification, the only responsible thing for Officer Crowley to do would have been to leave. Period. Instead, he escalated the situation because his ego had been challenged. We need police officers who are able to act as adults and uphold the law rather than their overinflated sense of power.

2. drhumors - June 30, 2010 at 04:58 pm

I agree with robear. A law enforcement officer is trained to remain calm and professional, while any homeowner would be riled by an armed cop in your home. Both Professor Gates and Officer Crowley could have communicated better, but Officer Crowley had the greater responsibility and the greater failure to act responsibly.

3. rburns - June 30, 2010 at 05:09 pm

Gates has built his career on failures in positive encounters between him and various other citizens. The policeman's error came in trying to do his job when he had no idea who this "scholar" was and how he uses other people to build his career--or how Gates would be shielded by that old bartender buddy, Obama. The committee's construction of model dialogue is too funny and displays a level of elitist attitude unusual even for Harvard Yard and more useless than Obama's "let's have a cold one and be buddies" solution that the Chronicle says "defused" the issue.

Typical that Gates's attorney wants it all or nothing (didn't he get his share of suds?). Fact is, my man, there are creeps out there, clients of yours or of colleagues, who would falsify even such a holy relic as a Harvard ID. Difficult to accept, I know, as most such vermin are struck down by Crimson thunder bolts for even the thought of such a felony. Hey, there are even a few cases we could name who carry genuine Harvard ID's and still commit what the rest of the world considers crimes.

Well, I guess the issue hasn't been "defused." It just went the way of other news that got dull in the retelling of it so that the media moved to other blood in the water. Gates got the notice he needs for the life he leads. The police officer did his job for us all and displayed his personal and professional integrity at every point.

4. jack_cade - June 30, 2010 at 05:09 pm

Yeah, there is simply no way the officer was right. Also, while I do not believe that Officer Crowley is a bigot, or lets say actively bigoted, clearly racial prejudice influenced the outcome that day. A black man, however affluent and educated can still be subject to the whims and arrest of a white man (possibly of Irish descent), however ignorant and poor.
That is precisely what happened. Can anyone imagine a situation where the same thing would have happened if that had been, say, Stephen Greenblatt's house? No you can't. If it had been a white man there would have been no arrest.
Anyone who denies is lying to themselves.
Of course, the racism is a problem, but also the ridiculously excessive power of the generally incompetent police should cause us all to shudder; the police no longer protect and serve but tax and enforce, doing both with all the humanity of highschool bullies, which indeed many of them were.

5. 11319762 - June 30, 2010 at 05:40 pm

I find it amazing that the respondents here know what was in the minds and hearts of Professor Gates and Sgt. Crowley merely from reading a few newspaper accounts of the incident. The facts are that a neighbor called the police to report a suspected break-in at the professor's home, that the police arrived and found Professor Gates at the scene (who apparently was himself just discovering that his door had been forced open) and that the two men ended up in a heated exchange when Sgt. Crowley asked Professor Gates to identify himself. Both men have subsequently admitted to being afraid in that situation, which seems quite natural given the circumstances. Both apparently over-reacted, the Professor to being challenged in his own home (which he found violated) and the policeman to the uncertainty of who he was confronting, the home-owner or the perpetrator, so he resorted to his training which teaches him to be bold to take control of an uncertain situation. The committee suggests that better communication could have offered cooler heads. That sounds more reasonable to me than blanket charges against either person, and certainly more reasonable than heinous accusations against anyone based that I have never met.

6. jack_cade - June 30, 2010 at 08:09 pm

Put it on the couch of your choice, but the facts of the incident remain, and we all know in our gut what went on in Professor Gates house that day.
Henry Louis Gates is not a frightening man, unless he is your chair or in the audience during a paper you're giving and he has a fundamental disagreement with your argument. He is a humanities professor, he is a nearly 60 year old man, far from imposing in stature, whose cloths look like the cloths of someone with his income, even his travel cloths. There is no reason for the much larger and much younger man with a gun holstered on his hip, Officer Crowley, to be afraid of Professor Gates (other than his much greater vocabulary and wit). The only reason, then, that Gates' ended up in handcuffs was his skin color.
Henry Louis Gates, Harvard professor was arrested for being Black.
The end.
We all know exactly how that moment went down, we all know that it would've been different had Gates been white.
Also, cops frequently use the "I was fearful" excuse to cover all sorts of pathetically stupid behavior.
As for the joke of a committee, their report sounds like they it was plagiarized from "Dr." Phil giving advice to ANYONE.
Should Gates have handled it differently? Certainly, but that is largely because he is an African American. He needs to keep himself in check just a little bit better than if he were white. Meanwhile officer Jim Crowley goes on as if he did nothing wrong. Because he did not, he upheld the expectations society. Although those expectations are morally reprehensible does not change them from being real and more than it has made them go away.

7. robear - June 30, 2010 at 08:50 pm

Actually,the fact is that Prof. Gates and his driver were the ones who forced the stuck front door, which the neighbor saw and reported. From Gates' perspective, he had just gotten into his own home after negotiating a stuck lock when the cops showed up.

Read the original reports.

8. jaros - June 30, 2010 at 10:20 pm

"Failure to communicate"...? As others have both said and implied, communication is a shared process, but why does the police force use to exonerate the officer? We often and rightly note, there is no such thing as a zero correlation and among many of us men of color in academia (the vast majority being 100% personally unrecognizeable by the public as Dr Gates), the Dr Gates as profile and not person. It brings to mind my running across Figueroa Blvd in broad daylight to speak with one of my professors (White) and having 4 Mexican American LAPD wrestle me to the ground with drawn pistols. Thank Heaven my professor saw the commotion and being intelligent properly deduced it was me, she came running (I think, I was face down on the intersection of Jefferson and Figueroa post scuffle). Afterwards, they let me up post vouching, she left, and I stayed and spoke with the police (all mestizo like me) and I asked why they chased me down. They said "you look suspicious." I said, "I look just like you." Anyway, my point is...we all have internalized this racist script and unless we've really worked it through, the various types of "Gates crashing" will often happen. Caveat emptor to both White and us Non White folks, inner decolonization beckons...

9. bobbyfisher - July 01, 2010 at 06:03 am

Police officers also makes me nervous, but that's not because I'm Black (which I'm not). That's basically because they are officers of the law and they are supposed to be somewhat intimidating in order to promote respect for them as enforcers of the law. I think it an unfortunate consequence of both American history and of Gates profession (as an activist) that he interpreted a normative degree of nervousness as something to challenge. I think that's the, may I say, perverse reaction of many Black men is to give the police "some attitude" or "lip" in order to counter any possible impression that they are intimidated.

10. 22228715 - July 01, 2010 at 08:36 am

For what it's worth... my usually gratingly somewhat racist white relative vigorously sided with Gates on this one. The rationale is that Gates was a homeowner, and that trumps everything else. For someone who is usually not afraid to talk race, this was about conservative (private property, individual right to do whatever you want) versus liberal (community, government monitoring or mediating, public safety) ideas.

Interesting that we are debating the relative weight of different forms of power, and the power of perception to shape the answer to which form of power slightly outweighs the other in what circumstances. If the world ever was simple enough that in any two-person encounter one had power the other didn't, that has now passed. The only thing that is certain is the posters who write "We all know..." should quickly deduce that this is simply not true and frame the argument in another way.

11. chuckkle - July 01, 2010 at 09:07 am

The previous writers don't mention this: Gates was arrested when the cop and he both moved outside his house and he continued to rail at the policeman. Inside his house he had the law and custom on his side: a man (or woman) is king in his castle. Yelling insults at a cop out in public (with other cops and the public outside) was something he could be arrested for. IF he just let the cop leave while staying inside the doorway, there would have been no basis for the (quite experienced) policeman to arrest him.

Chuck Kleinhans

12. 11182967 - July 01, 2010 at 09:23 am

At this smaller university we proudly announce that all of our officers have passed the training course at the state police academy--and we have a good group of officers. But this small state has a reputation for (even state police officers) behaving badly in spite of (I had assumed) their academy training. The research of one of our CJ faculty, however, suggests that the military-style academy training may itself be a problem. Our small towns often emphasize a community-based approach to policing which focuses on preventing and resolving conflict rather than escalating it. But then these small towns send their recruits off to the academy and they come back full of swagger and ego. I suspect Dr. Gates' officer went through the same sort of training and communicated accordingly.

On another note, what sort of nieghborhood does Gates live in that a neighbor would not know who he was when he was trying to get into his house?--much less volunteer to assist him? Even after 14 years I don't know the full names of all the neighbors I pass on my nightly walk, but I sure recognize them (and know a lot about them). And if they don't know my name either, they recognize meas the guy who walks through the neighborhood every evening. Whoever called the police on Gates probably knew exactly what they were doing and should be as much a "party of interest" in this discussion as Gates and the officer.

13. honore - July 01, 2010 at 09:27 am

As much as i dislike Gates for his pretentious, faux-aristocratic "bougieoy" straw-Afro-centric stupidity, I have to hand him this one. The cops were WRONG!!!

Once Gates produced his ID, the boys in blue needed to leave Gates in his NON-diverse,all-White neighborhood to protect himself from his inclusive "neighbors" and his own special brand of lapdog politics.

Only in America.

14. mercy_otis_warren - July 01, 2010 at 10:20 am

@ Jack_Cade: "We all know exactly how that moment went down, we all know that it would've been different had Gates been white."

I suggest that Jack_Cade take a gander at Radley Balko's excellent and necessary blog, The Agitator (http://www.theagitator.com), which focuses on police overstretch, abuse, and misuse of the law when confronting citizens. (The militarization of the police cited by 11182967 is a likely contributor.)

There, Jack_Cade will find plenty of instances of *white* people arrested in their own homes, or arrested for "sassing" police officers.

15. mbelvadi - July 01, 2010 at 01:27 pm

Is it really illegal/arrestable to just shout insults at the police, in a context in which your words can't in any way result in the incitement of others to act violently (e.g. there were no others present to be incited in this case), in Massachusetts or any other state?

What ever happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me!"?

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