Obama: Police Acted 'Stupidly' in Gates Case

President says Harvard professor's arrest highlights race inequities.

ByABC News
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."