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, 6:56 AM

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."

Two Sides to the Story

Crowley offered his defense in an interview with Boston television station WHDH. The police officer said he was just doing his job but that Gates continued to rant "that I was doing this because he was a black man in America, that I was a racist."

Crowley said that while he was radioing in Gates' name to the dispatcher for record, "I couldn't hear myself say it. He was yelling that loud," Crowley said.

Gates told CNN that he complied with the police officer's request for identification, but that Crowley didn't say anything or respond back and arrested him without explanation.

As to reports of him being disorderly, Gates responded: "Yes, look how tumultuous I am. I'm 5'7, I weigh 150 pounds. And my tumultuous, outrageous action, was to demand that he give me his name and his badge number."

Gates attorney Charles Ogletree told ABC News Thursday that Gates did not violate any law.

Today, the second police officer who was with Crowley during the arrest said the sergeant did what he was supposed to do.

Patrolman Carlos Figueroa told The Associated Press that when Crowley asked Gates to present identification, the professor shouted, "No, I will not!" Figueroa said Gates called Crowley a racist and shouted, "This is what happens to black men in America!"

Crowley has said he will not apologize for his actions.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News' Terry Moran Thursday, the president defended his comments, stressing that "cooler heads should have prevailed." Obama said it doesn't make sense to him that the situation escalated to the point that Gates was arrested.

During his news conference Wednesday night that was dominated by health care issues, the president, acknowledging that he did not know all the facts of the case and what role race may have played, said "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who called Gates a friend, would not comment on the remarks the president made Wednesday.

"I was not there, and the words I would use are troubling and upsetting," he told reporters Thursday.

But he did say that he was glad the charges were dropped and that Gates' arrest was "every black man's nightmare."

"I guess you ought to be able to raise your voice in your own house without risking arrest," Deval said.

Did Obama Go Too Far With Race Remark?

Obama's remarks have stirred national debate over whether Gates' arrest was an issue of racial profiling, as he himself asserted.

"It's not a case of racial profiling," said NPR analyst Juan Williams on "Good Morning America."

Williams made clear there are dangers when blacks are confronted by police. "As someone who has been stopped, as a black person in America, I have a very deferential approach to cops. I don't speak to them in aggressive tones. ... It's just that cops can be very prickly, especially with a black guy."

But Williams said the president went "way too far" without seeing the police report and knowing all the specifics of the case, as Obama himself admitted.

"I think what he now has to do is walk it back and say, you know what, I spoke out of turn here. ... I was reacting in support of a friend, and aware of larger racial issues in society. But it doesn't specifically apply to this case, which is not about racial profiling," Williams advised.

Even actor Bill Cosby weighed in on the debate, telling Boston's WZLX yesterday that he was "shocked" to hear the president's statement.

But some say the president was right to bring up this discussion in a primetime speech.

"Have some people wanted him to bring this up sooner?" asked civil rights activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton. "Of course, we have. But the timing had to be right. He had the courage to take a position at a time when he knows some people will disagree."

"If he hadn't addressed it, it would have looked like he was ducking. I was surprised he said what he said, because his words brought the conversation to a new level," Sharpton said.

Although Obama has been vocal on past civil rights issues, he largely avoided race during the presidential campaign except for a singular speech he gave on the issue after his pastor was found to have made anti-American statements.

"No one wants to talk about race," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and ABC News consultant. "He [Obama] does not inject race into the conversation regularly because it clears the room. There are designated times, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day or when we have a large gathering of black folks, like at the NAACP recently, but that's about it."

"In this case, he was asked a question directly, and he answered it honestly," she added.

In addition to his specific comments about Gates' arrest, the president Wednesday also weighed in about the race issue, saying that while he didn't know whether it played a role, "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."

Some observers questioned whether the president should have so strongly backed Gates, a longtime friend, over the police who arrested him without fully knowing exactly what took place between the professor and Crowley.

"Obama is the president for all American not just black Americans," Brazile said. "He has enough on his plate as commander in chief -- two wars, an economy in the tank -- that he should not necessarily become the healer in chief."

ABC News' Reynolds Holdings contributed to this report.