Obama Defends Criticism of Cambridge Police in Arrest of Gates

In ABC News interview, Obama says "cooler heads should have prevailed."

ByABC News
July 23, 2009, 7:13 AM

July 23, 2009— -- President Obama today stood by his comments that the Cambridge, Mass., police department acted "stupidly" in its arrest of Henry Louis Gates, telling ABC News that the Harvard University professor should not have been arrested.

"I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who's in his own home," Obama said.

In an exclusive interview with ABC's Terry Moran to air on "Nightline" tonight, Obama said it doesn't make sense to him that the situation escalated to the point that Gates was arrested.

"I think that I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do," the president told Moran. "And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed. That's my suspicion."

The president said he understands the sergeant who arrested Gates is an "outstanding police officer." But he added that with all that's going on in the country with health care and the economy and the wars abroad, "it doesn't make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he's not causing a serious disturbance."

Cambridge Police Department Commissioner Robert C. Haas said in a press conference late Thursday that his department was "deeply pained" by the president's comments yesterday.

"We take our professional pride very deeply. ... And when I talked to the officers... you could see they were really stunned," Haas told reporters, adding that they took "those comments to heart" and "were very much deflated."

Haas said the department "deeply regrets the situation" but also stood behind Sgt. James Crowley, who arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.

"I believe that Sgt. Crowley acted in a way that's consistent with his training and national standards," Haas said. "I don't believe in any way that his actions were racially motivated."

"Based on what I have seen, he maintained a professional decorum through the entire situation and maintained himself in a professional manner," Haas added.

Haas said a professional panel will be assembled to investigate and analyze the incident, and added that, "The whole story hasn't been told."

Sgt. Tom Fleming, director of the Lowell Police Academy, told ABC News today that Crowley has been teaching a class to cops on racial profiling at the academy for the last five years.

"Jim Crowley is what we call a squared away guy. He's a really good role model for young cops and he was selected to teach this racial profiling class by the former police commissioner of Cambridge, Ron Watson, who is black," Fleming said.

Crowley and his union slammed the president today for his comments about the incident at Gates' house last week.

Obama "was dead wrong to malign this police officer specifically and the department in general," Alan McDonald, the lawyer for the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, told ABC News today.

Crowley also chimed in, saying that the president's characterization was "way off base. ... I acted appropriately," Crowley told WBZ Radio in Boston Thursday.

"I support the president of the United States 110 percent," Crowley told WBZ. "I think he's way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts, as he himself stated before he made that comment."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that the president was not calling the Cambridge police officer stupid when he criticized his actions in the Gates incident.

On whether the president regrets the use of his words, Gibbs said: "No. He was not calling the officer stupid. The situation got out of hand."

Gibbs said he was not aware whether the president had spoken to Gates.