Prominent Black Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Sees Charges Dropped

Mass. police call incident "regrettable and unfortunate."

July 20, 2009, 9:22 PM

July 21, 2009— -- Massachusetts authorities today dropped disorderly conduct charges against prominent Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., calling his arrest last week "regrettable and unfortunate."

"This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department," said Cambridge Police Department Spokeswoman Kelly Downes in a prepared joint statement by the City of Cambridge, the Cambridge Police Department and Mr. Gates.

"All parties agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances," said Downes.

At a press conference this afternoon Downes went on to say that she still believed there was "probable cause" for Gates' arrest.

"I think what went wrong personally is that you had two human beings that were reacting to a set of circumstances, and unfortunately at the time cooler heads did not prevail," said Downes.

"I think both parties were wrong," said Downes. "I think that's fair to say. It wasn't Professor Gates' best moment. and it was not the Cambridge Police Department's best moment."

Gates, 58, was charged with disorderly conduct after when on July 16 police responded to a call about someone apparently trying to break into his Cambridge, Mass., home.

Gates, who according to his lawyer had been trying to force open a jammed door, was inside the house when the Cambridge police officer got there.

Asked about allegations that Gates' arrest was racially fueled, Downes said, "Our position is very firmly that race did not play any factor at all in the arrest of Mr. Gates."

At the time of his arrest, Gates allegedly responded to the officer's request for identification by shouting, "Why, because I am a black man in America?" and calling him a racist.

Though Gates eventually identified himself, he was arrested after he allegedly came out of the house and continued yelling at police, even after he was warned that he "was becoming disorderly," according to the police report.

Downes said that she hoped Gates' arrest will be a learning experience for the Cambridge Police Department.

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," had just returned from a trip to China and found the front door of his home jammed, according to his Harvard colleague and attorney Charles Ogletree.

He entered the house through the back door, but then tried to get the front door open so he could bring his luggage in, which may have been when the woman who called 911 saw, Ogletree said.

Gates has declined to discuss the incident, but Al Sharpton, who spoke to the Harvard professor, told ABC News that Gates is "clearly upset and in a state of disbelief."

Before the announcement today, the Cambridge Police Department had refused to comment on the arrest, but a high-ranking Cambridge police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told ABC News Monday that racism played no role in the arrest and said that rather than police harassing Gates, it was the Harvard professor who harassed the cop.

"We weren't going there to bother the guy. We were going there because we got a 911 call of house break-in in progress,'' the official said.

The caller said that there was a man using his shoulder to break down the door of Gates' home, the official said.

The arrest came after Gates "continually screeched at and harassed the responding officer, who was trying to make sure that he was the occupant of the home and that it was secure," the official said.

According to the police report on the incident, a woman identified only as Ms. Walen, called 911 from her cell phone saying that she observed two black men with backpacks on the porch of Gates' Ware Street home.

When Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrived on the scene, she told him "her suspicions were arroused when she observed one of the men wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry," according to his report.

Crowley went to the house and finding a man, who turned out to be Gates, already inside, he asked him through the door for identification, the sergeant's report said.

Gates refused and called Crowley a "racist police officer,'' and when he was asked to come outside, yelled, "Why, because I am a black man in America?'' according to the report.

While Crowley was questioning him, Gates allegedly picked up a phone, dialed a number and told someone to "get the chief" and then told the officer he "had no idea who [he] was 'messing' with and [he] had not heard the last of it," the report said.

The sergeant wrote that Gates initially refused to provide identification, but then showed his Harvard University card. The sergeant again asked him to step outside and Gates allegedly responded, "Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside."

Police said the confrontation was witnessed by the woman who made the call and at least seven other people, as well as several Cambridge and Harvard University police.

ABC News' calls to Lucia Walen, the woman who made the 911 call, were not answered.

Gates Under Arrest

Ogletree had a different account of the events, saying that Gates immediately told the police officer that he lived in the house and showed him his identification when he was asked for it.

Gates was on the phone with the Harvard Real Estate office reporting the damage and asking to have it fixed when the officer came to his door, Ogletree said in a statement posted on

The professor opened the door to the police officer, but when the cop immediately asked him to step outside, Gates asked him why he was there, according to Ogletree's account.

When the officer told him that he was responding to a report of a breaking and entering in progress at the house, Gates told him that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard, the lawyer said.

Rather than denying or ignoring the officer's request to prove what he said, according to Ogletree, Gates said he could and went to get his wallet, which he had left in the kitchen.

Once there, he handed the officer his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver's license, both of which include Gates' photograph, the lawyer said.

However, when Gates then asked the officer if he would give him his name and his badge number -- a request he reapeated several times -- the officer did not produce any identification, according to Ogletree's statement.

Instead, the officer turned and left the kitchen without ever indicating whether there were charges against Gates, Ogletree said.

Only when Gates followed the officer outside did the officer say "Thank you for accommodating my earlier request," and then placed Gates under arrest, handcuffing the professor on his own front porch, the lawyer said.

"This is outrageous to us," Sharpton said.

"It's either a clear case of police abuse or racial profiling," he said. "This happens every day, but to have it happen to one of the most prominent black academicians is unbelievable."

Racial Incidents at Harvard

This is the third incident in recent months in which blacks at Harvard have accused the school or police of heavy-handed treatment, though the two previous incidents were both on campus.

In February, a woman claimed that Harvard wrongly banned her from the school and barred her from attending graduation ceremonies after she was linked to the murder of a man on campus.

Chanequa Campbell said she was not making an "overall claim of racism," but "I do believe I am being singled out. ... The honest answer to that is that I'm black and I'm poor and I'm from New York and I walk a certain way and I keep my clothes a certain way," she said. "It's something that labels me as different from everyone else."

Prosecutors said Campbell invited the accused killer, a reputed marijuana dealer who was allegedly selling to students, into the dorm where the murder took place.

Months earlier, an African-American teenager, who was caught trying to sever a bike lock on the campus from what turned out to be his bicycle, claimed Harvard police screamed racial obscenities at him.

Gates has been a member of the Harvard faculty since 1991 and holds one of 20 "university professors" positions at the school. He also was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1997.

"I was obviously very concerned when I learned on Thursday about the incident," Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said in a statement. "He and I spoke directly and I have asked him to keep me apprised."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.