Obama Called Police Officer Who Arrested Gates, Still Sees 'Overreaction' in Arrest
The president explained his remarks in a surprise appearance before reporters.
July 24, 2009 — -- President Obama called the Cambridge police officer who arrested his friend, prominent Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., but did not go so far as to say he apologized to the sergeant for saying the police acted "stupidly" during the incident.
Late today, Gates' attorney, Charles Ogletree, told ABC News that his client was "relieved and excited" by the president's telephone outreach.
"It's going to bring together not only the parties to this particular episode but a larger community dialogue about how citizens and police can have more productive and effective exchanges," Ogletree said.
Representatives of Sgt. James Crowley released a statement saying Crowley was "profoundly grateful" for the phone call.
"It is clear to us from this conversation that the president respects police officers and the often difficult and dangerous situations we face on a daily basis. We appreciate his sincere interest and willingness to reconsider his remarks about the Cambridge Police Department," the statement read.
Earlier today in an unannounced trip to the White House press room, the president clarified remarks he made at the end of Wednesday night's press conference, reiterating his point that "there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home."
But Obama said he had a cordial conversation with Crowley, who had complained about the president's criticism. Obama said laughingly he had a discussion with Crowley about the three of them having beer at the White House.
The president's spokesman said it was Crowley's idea for the three to get together for a beer. According to Gates' attorney, Gates doesn't drink beer but he'll show-up for the meeting.
The president also called Gates following his impromptu remarks and invited the Harvard professor to join him at the White House with Crowley in the near future.
"Because this has been ratcheting up -- and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up -- I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately... gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sgt. Crowley specifically," the president said. "And I could've calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley."
"I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station," the president added. "I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved."
Sources told ABC News the White House reached out to Tom Nee, president of the National Police Officers Association, who then contacted Crowley. Crowley got the call while he was with his union supporters.
Obama said it was unfortunate that his comments, instead of illuminating, contributed to "media frenzy" and said he hopes this would be "a teachable moment."
He also defended his decision to make remarks about the incident, saying, "The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that... race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio."
Obama ended his remarks jokingly, saying that Crowley asked him for advice on how to get the press off his lawn.
"If anybody has any connections to the Boston press as well as national press, Sgt. Crowley would be happy for you to stop trampling his grass," Obama said.
Earlier today, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he did not expect Obama to have anything else to say about the incident, but the president's call to Crowley and his surprise appearance reflect the White House's determination to put an end to the controversy that has dogged him since Wednesday. Obama today himself acknowledged that in the last two days, "Nobody's been paying much attention to health care."
Alan McDonald, who represents Crowley, the veteran cop who teaches a racial profiling class for rookie police officers told ABC News earlier that the sergeant had not ruled out filing a defamation of character or libel lawsuit against Gates.
"He is exploring all of his options,'' McDonald told ABC News.
Though charges were dropped, Gates has loudly asserted his arrest was a result of racial profiling.
The arrest and subsequent storm of racially charged comments has enveloped the White House after Obama said on Wednesday the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" in arresting the prominent black scholar.
In a press conference held by the Cambridge police unions and Massachusetts Municipal Police Officers Association to support Crowley, members said they hope Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Patrick Deval will apologize for their remarks. Crowley stood with them but remained silent.
McDonald argued that race "played no role in the decision making in this case," adding that it was "inappropriate" of Obama to use this case to talk about racial profiling.
When making his remarks, the president acknowledged that he had not seen all the facts in the case and what role race may have played.
While there is a history of complaints by minorities against officers at the Cambridge Police Department, experts say it's not out of the ordinary compared to other U.S. cities.
"The issues confronting Cambridge are not different from [those] in any other department," Margaret Burnham, a Northeastern University law professor who has sued the department twice, told ABC News. "These things [like the Gates case] happen across the country."