Obama Defends Criticism of Cambridge Police in Arrest of Gates

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

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.

Police were called to Gates' home near Harvard University last week after a woman reported seeing two "black men with backpacks" trying to force open the front door to Gates' house.

The police report said Gates, who was returning from a trip to China and found his front door jammed, at first refused to provide an ID and became unruly. He was charged with disorderly conduct but the charges were dropped this week.

Law enforcement sources told ABC News that the conversation between Gates and Crowley was transmitted over Crowley's open police radio and Gates can be heard yelling.

"Mr. Gates was given plenty of opportunities to stop what he was doing. He didn't. He acted very irrational. He controlled the outcome of that event," Crowley told WBZ.

Crowley said Gates, the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research and former host of the PBS show "African American Lives," called him a "racist cop."

"There was a lot of yelling, there was references to my mother," he added, "something you wouldn't expect from anybody that should be grateful that you were there investigating a report of a crime in progress, let alone a Harvard University professor."

McDonald defended the police department's record on race.

"This is an excellent police department dedicated to nondiscrimination," he told ABC News. "It was inappropriate to use the situation to implicate the history of racism in America. This had nothing to do with race and everything to do with Gates' behavior."

At the end of Wednesday night's prime-time news conference that was intended to be chiefly about health care, Obama was asked about the incident, to which he responded: "I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that."

But Obama went on to say, "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's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."

Obama acknowledged that Gates is a friend and that since he was not there, he cannot know exactly what role race may have played in the incident. He also acknowledged that the Cambridge police acted appropriately in initially responding to the call that a man was seen forcibly entering the Gates home.

Speaking about race, the president said that while African Americans and Hispanics are more frequently stopped by police, "That doesn't lessen the incredible progress we've made. I'm standing here as testimony to that. And yet the fact of the matter is it still haunts us."

Jim Carnell, union representative of the Boston Patrolmen Association, said the president's comments are unforgiveable.

"With one sentence, our president set this country back 100 years. For the president of the United States to use a prime-time news conference to push through comments in favor of his friend that cast police officer in this country as stupid is unforgiveable," Carnell said at the headquarters of the Boston police.

Charles P. Wilson, National Chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, told ABC News that the officers involved "could have taken a different path on handling that case" but also said that the president could have used different language.

"I want the president of this country, regardless of who he is -- a black man in the White House, a white man in the White House, or any other person in the White House -- to be able to acknowledge and recognize there are still issues of race in America," Wilson said.

Some Republicans seized on the president's comments. The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched banner advertisements on "select web sites" asking people to vote on whether Obama's comments were presidential.

Crowley said he won't apologize for the way he responded, even though the Harvard professor has asked for one.

"The apology won't come from me. I've done nothing wrong," he told WBZ.

Gates' attorney, on the other hand, said they were pleased by the president's comments.

Charles Ogletree, Gates' attorney and a fellow Harvard professor, told "Good Morning America's" Dan Harris today that Gates "was simply pleased that Barack acknowledged he was a friend and what he had read and heard and understood to have been reported that Professor Gates did not violate the law."

The Boston Herald reported that Crowley is the same police officer who, 16 years ago, gave basketball player Reggie Lewis mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as the Celtics star suffered a fatal heart attack. The paper said many questioned at that time about whether Crowley did enough to save the black player in the aftermath of the incident.

ABC News' George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" that Obama's joke about breaking into the White House and getting arrested was "a real human solid moment" but that his comments that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Gates may have crossed the line.

His comments are unlikely to hurt the president, but it certainly has moved the focus of attention from health care to the Gates controversy.

Was Gates 'Belligerent?'

One of Crowley's neighbors supported the sergeant's account, saying that the police report that said Gates was "belligerent" was not completely off the mark.

Today Ogletree told "GMA" that Gates "made that clear that he'd be happy to talk" with Crowley to discuss the incident.

Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons, who apologized to Gates after the incident, said she would like to meet with the professor, the police chief and the arresting officer. She said she was not expecting Obama's comments.

"I was surprised to hear it come up in a press conference in Washington, D.C., that was about health care reform," she told "Good Morning America."

Simmons has said before that she was "outraged" at the arrest of Gates, whom she also knows socially. Today, she said they have still not finished investigating the incident.

When asked if she thought it was appropriate for Obama to comment, Simmons said, "I'm not going to make a judgement on what the president says and when he says it."

"I appreciate President Obama's remarks. As he mentioned in his statement, he and Professor Gates are friends, and he doesn't know all the facts," Simmons said. "We're still trying to figure out ... what really happened and how we can move toward a resolution."

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said today at a news conference of the Congressional Black Caucus that: "The president was right on target. Some of us come from communities that have been racially profiled. This is an example of … unfinished business in America and unequality and racism that continues to exist."

According to a January ABC News/Washington Post poll, 74 percent of black Americans said they have personally experienced racial discrimination. But it's not a racial issue limited to blacks. Sixty-eight percent of other non-white Americans also said they were discriminated against racially.

Per ABC News' polling director Gary Langer, the numbers support Obama's position. Specifically to the Gates case, 76 percent of African-Americans in the poll said blacks in their community do not receive equal treatment as whites from the police.

"What it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of color are and all poor people to capricious forces like a rogue policeman," Gates said of the incident in an interview with CNN Wednesday.

"The actions of the Cambridge Police Department, and in particular, Sgt. Joseph Crowley, were 100 percent correct,'' said Hugh Cameron, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police. "He was responding to a report of two men breaking into a home. The police cannot just drive by the house and say, 'Looks like everything is OK.'

A police source told ABC News that Gates' front door showed marks from where a previous break-in had occurred a month or two earlier.

A high-ranking Cambridge police official, who spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity because the department is under orders "from the mayor not to talk," said that Crowley followed standard operating procedure for a call of a burglary in progress.

"Let's face it," the official said. "This case has nothing to do with race. This is a man who has made some phone calls and the case went away. They treated him with kid gloves. Harvard University executives rushed to the police station to monitor the entire situation."

There are questions about the way the case was handled. David Frank, a former prosecutor and a writer for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said it was "unusual" for a case to be "nul-processed" [charges dropped] without a court appearance. Gates was slated to be arraigned on disorderly conduct charges Aug. 26.

"Legally, the prosecution made the right call," Frank said. "The issue, though, is that if Gates were an electrician from Everett and not a well-known professor from Harvard, the reality is that in all likelihood he would have to defend himself against the charges in a courtroom.

A spokesman for Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone insisted that political influence did not play a role in the case.

"Once a complaint is issued it can be dropped at anytime," said the spokesman, Corey Welford.

Leone brokered a meeting between Ogletree and Cambridge police officials to see "if the case could be resolved,'' Welford said. "The district attorney agreed to drop the charges after an agreement was made between the Cambridge Police Department and Gates' attorney.''

ABC News' Russell Goldman, Karen Travers and Rachel Humphries contributed to this report.