Obama: Police Acted 'Stupidly' in Gates Case

President says Harvard professor's arrest highlights race inequities.

July 20, 2009, 9:22 PM

July 22, 2009— -- President Barack Obama says police in Cambridge, Mass., acted "stupidly" this week when they arrested Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, someone they knew was in his own home.

In the final question of a live prime time news conference this evening that largely dealt with health care, Obama was asked about the Gates case.

"My understanding is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house and, at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped," Obama said.

Police dispute the extent of Gates' cooperation, saying he didn't initially provide identification when asked and berated the police.

However, Obama continued, "I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that [Gates case]. But 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."

Though Obama questioned Gates' arrest, he said the Cambridge, Mass., police acted appropriately in initially responding to the call that a man was seen forcibly entering the Gates home.

Obama said that he, too, would likely be stopped by police if, like Gates, he was seen forcibly entering his home. But the president, standing in the East Room of the White House, laughed at his own hypothetical example and said that since the White House is now his home, if he were forcibly entering it, "I would be shot."

Saying that while African-Americans and Hispanics are more frequently stopped by police, Obama said, "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."

Obama acknowledged that Gates is a personal friend and that since he was not present, he cannot know exactly what role race may have played in the incident.

Bay State Police Complain of Favoritism

But in Massachusetts today, police officers were raising questions about possible favoritism over the handling of disorderly conduct charges that were lodged and promptly dropped against the prominent Harvard scholar.

The incident began when Cambridge Police Sgt. Joseph Crowley responded to a call about someone apparently trying to break into Gates' home.

Crowley said Gates called him a "racist cop" after he arrived at the house and asked the Harvard professor for identification. Gates is said to have refused by saying, "No I will not."

Gates then, according to Crowley, said he was being harassed because he is a "black man in America." As the confrontation escalated, Crowley was then joined by a Hispanic Cambridge police officer and a black sergeant, according to two high-ranking law enforcement officials who have been briefed on the case and Cambridge police reports.

Gates was arrested and booked on a disorderly conduct charge.

"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.'

"Sgt. Crowley was carrying out his duty as a law enforcement officer protecting the property of Professor Gates, and he was accused of being a racist," Cameron added. "The situation would have been over in five minutes if Professor Gates cooperated with the officer. Unfortunately, the situation we are in now is the environment police work in now."

Jim Carnell, a union representative for the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, said cops are "furious at the way Crowley is being vilified."

"The officer's mindset when going in there is, 'Why was he breaking down the door?' Maybe there is a restraining order in place. Maybe Harvard University, who owns the house, changed the locks for some reason. The officer's job is to make sure everything is on the up-and-up,'' Carnell said.

"Mr. Gates should be grateful that the police responded and explained himself with some civil discourse," Carnell added. "It would have ended there. Instead, his arrogant, combative behavior gave the cops cause to wonder that something else was going on."

A police source told ABC News that Gates' front door showed marks from where a previous break-in had occured there 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 [E. Denise Simmons] 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."

"They let him off the hook," the official added. "The mayor threw the department under the bus. She might as well open the city's checkbook. ... If Professor Gates was poor, he'd be in a jail cell."

Massachusetts authorities, in dropping the disorderly conduct charges against Gates, called 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 Gates.

But 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. He is now demanding an apology from Crowley instead.

"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.

"He never even stepped into a courtroom and the charges were dropped," Frank added. "The fact that Gates is as well-known and as prominent as he is makes this case unusual."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has publicly stated that he is friendly with Gates and Charles Ogletree, another Harvard University professor who is acting as Gates' attorney.

Simmons has said she is "outraged" at the arrest of Gates, who she also knows socially.

The remarks have raised questions about politicians intervening on Gates' behalf.

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.''

At a press conference Tuesday, Downes said 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, 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."

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.

The officers were sent to the house after a 911 call placed by Lucia Whalen Thursday afternoon. Whalen, who works at Harvard magazine, had reported that two "black men with backpacks" shouldered their way into a home on a tony, upscale Cambridge block -- one of the leafy neighborhoods that ring the college.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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