Posted by Brad @ 1:34 pm on July 25th 2009

The Crowley-Gates Incident

The bad thing about having really limited internet access lately is I can only come to stories as a Johnny-come-lately. But so be it, I’ll just give crib note posts.

Henry Louis Gates is a Harvard professor and one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on the subject of race, African American studies specifically. He is also a fairly risable figure, which is probably just as well, and the jokes at Cambridge tend towards Gates being one of the stereotypical “How come the 8 ball got to be black?” sort of racial thinkers. Which is, as I said, probably just as well.

Last week he returned from a trip to China and found his front door jammed (likely from the recent humidity—happens to me all the time). He had to essentially bust in his own door. Neighbors saw this black man busting in a door and entering a home and called the police. A Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, showed up, and upon doing so, Gates got belligerent at the suggested racism of having to prove that the home was his.

Regardless, he did prove so, but because he was getting so sassy, Crowley arrested him anyway.

Clearly, this story has a lot of barely-under-the-surface tension to it, which is why all the usual suspects have taken it up, including Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and so on and so forth. Barack Obama made the uncharacteristic mistake of making an unsolicited comment on the matter, siding with Gates (whom he knows socially), which rendered the whole thing a Major Media Event.

It’s an interesting story that I’m not particularly interested in, at least on the race angle. Ta-Nehsi Coates, as usual, is the guy to read, though the Andrew Sullivanitese are doing a decent job too (though not necessarily according to Coates. But I say all that just to say this:

Police officers are friggin’ babies.

Don’t get me wrong, Gates was a mewling baby on this matter too, and anyone with any common sense knows better than to make a maelstrom out of dealing with a cop. But Gates was of course not the one with a gun and a blank check to arrest anybody that bothers him.

I have a lot of respect for police officers that do their job well, because it is a very tough job, and one of the toughest parts is dealing with the constant abuse and guys like Gates.

But still, I agree with this HuffPo writer that the salient issue here isn’t race, but is actually citizen rights full stop. The officer, upon Gates proving that he was the homeowner to the officer’s satisfaction, should have turned right then and there and left.

Crowley and the Cambridge Police are indignant not because of race but because they are arrogant cops, typical of the arrogance that undermines the police profession.

Police believe that citizens do not have a right to challenge them, even once they have established the facts of their innocence. Individuals, police believe, have no right to yell at them, express anger at them and even call them names.

I disagree with that completely. Gates was on his property. In his home. Regardless of whether the police officer could not confirm it right away, once he did, the police officer was on a man’s property in a country where a man’s home is his castle and what you do in your home is almost completely your business.

Obama is correct when he says the Cambridge Police “acted stupidly.” They did. Crowley should apologize to Gates, even though Gates should have used common sense and curbed his own emotions and accusations that race rather than individual rights was the point of contention.

Crowley should apologize because as a police officer who carries a weapon and is shouldered with the limits of individual authority, he must live to the higher standard of justice and he must adhere to responsibilities that everyday Americans must be assured are rights that are protected.

Whether you came as a police officer knocking on my door with the best of intentions, once it was clear that you were wrong, then you should have apologized and left immediately. And if the confrontation provoked anger from the citizens, the police should be professional enough to recognize that the circumstances sometimes justice a citizens outrage and anger as an expression of their free speech.

Or, to quote Coates again:

I feel pretty stupid for going hard on this, and stupider for defending what Obama won’t really defend himself. I should have left it at one post. Evidently Obama, Crowley and Gates are talking about getting a beer together. I hope they have a grand old time.

The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can’t explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me.


  1. Did you read the police report, Brad? Office Crowley was responding to a reported burglary attempt. He arrives on the scene, observes a jimmied door, and proceeds to question the a man inside the house, who he clearly didn’t know (much to Gates’ chagrin). He asks for identification an is met with hostility. Once the officer had ascertained from an uncooperative Gates that the man was in fact the owner, you think he should have left the premises in light of a called in report of a burglary in process? Please. Crowley had no way of knowing if there were others in the house, etc. and was simply following procedure.

    At the end of the day, I think Gates was more chafed about this police officer who didn’t know who he was and how incredibly important he was (in his own mind at least).

    Obama really stepped in it when he chose to step in and make a foolish judgment about a case that, by his own admission, he did not have all the information. I think everyone involved got exactly what they deserved except Officer Crowley and the Cambridge PD.

    Obama doesn’t need to better “calibrate” his words, he needs to use less of them; at least when he doesn’t have his teleprompter fired up.

    Comment by James — 7/25/2009 @ 3:02 pm

  2. PS> When the hell are we going to get comment edit capabilities around here like real blogs have?

    (Edit: well, obviously SOMEBODY can edit comments here)

    Comment by James — 7/25/2009 @ 3:04 pm

  3. Ha! That last bit is funny because Obama uses a teleprompter! Also, he’s not really an American.

    Bullshit. Gates acted like an ass. Wah wah. Acting all uppity because his neighbors called the cops on him and a police officer is standing in front of him trying to make him prove it was his house he’s standing in, which it was, and which he did.

    Nobody can fault Crowley for responding to the complaint. That’s his job, and surely Gates should have had more respect for that. But that’s besides the point. Gates was arrested not because he committed a crime, but because he was copping an attitude. And every time a cop gets so much leeway that he can arrest people willy-nilly for not showing what the officer deems to be an appropriate amount of respect, you don’t have justice, you have guys with guns with totally arbitrary arrest powers and big chips on their shoulders.

    The racial angle here, or even Gates’ behavior (where it wasn’t criminal, and it wasn’t), doesn’t interest me a lick. It’s a straight line from Officer Crowley to, say, the TSA guys who detained the Campaign For Liberty worker for not cowering in fear and not answering the questions he was in no way legally obligated to answer. Or let me ask you this: subjective assessments of the wisdom or class of Gates’ behavior aside, was it criminal?

    For some reason, nobody seems to care to ask that question. Which is odd, because that would seem to me to be the only one that matters.

    Comment by Brad — 7/25/2009 @ 7:10 pm

  4. Actually, none of this matters. A police officer got nasty with a nasty black man. On the face of it the police officer arrested the black man in his own house, and that seems kinda stupid when you read about it.
    And since when have republicans earned the right to condemn someone else’s rush to judgment based on an incomplete picture, if not an intentional mischaracterization, of a situation.

    These were the guys freaking out about FEMA camps, Acorn fannie mae conspiracies, mormon cricket studies, and “Obamacare taking your insurance away”.
    There are important things to talk about
    and what idiots think of Obama without his teleprompter because Drudge and Rush have declared how upset they are with Obama’s careless speech.
    Which never seemed to be a problem when Bush was in office.

    Comment by thimbles — 7/25/2009 @ 10:26 pm

  5. upset they are with Obama’s careless speech isn’t one of those important things.

    Is what I meant to type.

    Comment by thimbles — 7/25/2009 @ 10:30 pm

  6. If this blog wasn’t so 2002, you would have been able to edit that, Thimbles.

    Comment by James — 7/26/2009 @ 12:16 am

  7. Oh for christ’s sake James, it does not matter at all how big of a race pimp ass Gates is or was, it is the police report that makes it clear that the cop manufactured a “crime” and arrested him for nothing more than failure to be sufficiently respectful to the magical uniform and badge. He didn’t “Respect my athoritiiii” as Cartman would say. Race shmace, this is all about law enforcement’s ability to generate a charge regardless of the law. It is ridiculous, and makes me fear the police even more.

    Comment by Jack — 7/26/2009 @ 10:16 pm

  8. There is NO law that mandates respect for cops. Common sense, yes, law no. And the abuse by law enforcement surrounding the gap between these two is extraordinary.

    Comment by Jack — 7/26/2009 @ 10:17 pm

  9. Sullivan, back from vacation:

    And Obama is right that cops like Crowley are good men in general (although I can’t pass a judgment on someone I don’t know). I also believe in being respectful and polite to policemen as a rule, and do not recall any moment in my life when I haven’t been. But I do think it’s necessary to remember that policemen are our servants, not our masters. We pay their salary – and they’d better treat us right. And I find the many comments that we should always show deference to the man with the gun and the badge and never publicly criticize cops to be alarmingly authoritarian in its implications.

    If a cop gives you trouble in your own home after it is perfectly clear that no crime has taken place, you have every right to tell him to get the hell out of your house; and he has no right to hang around. You also have every right to give him your opinion of his police work or his haircut if you so wish.

    There is a distinction, in other words, between a deference to cops based on trust and a deference based on fear. I find the idea that mouthing off to a cop in your own home is enough to get you arrested a disturbing feature of the post-9/11 police state. My gut sense of the interaction is that Crowley – used to total deference and fear from those he interacts with – was simply appalled at being harangued so vituperatively, especially by a black man (but race was not the only factor), and quickly realized he had no grounds to arrest Gates in his home, and so lured him outside to get the pretext of “disorderly conduct” in front of seven people. Yes, Skip over-reacted after a long flight and an embarrassing battle with his door; but Crowley – a cop who declared that he was a Republican to the media for no apparent reason – got the man who didn’t kowtow to him in cuffs as revenge. The very fact that the charges were dropped tells you who was in the wrong, according to the Cambridge police.

    I don’t know about you, but I prefer societies in which the exercize of free speech in your own home does not lead to being arrested – especially just to teach you a lesson on how to be deferent to police.

    This ought not be hard to understand, and I really just cannot fathom where somebody would get off disagreeing with it, or on what grounds.

    Comment by Brad — 7/28/2009 @ 12:24 pm

  10. I think the COP just should have walked away.

    However, if I decided to yell at a cop about, for example, being a fat doughnut eater, in a similar situation, and followed him out the door continuing to yell that at him despite three warnings, I think I would probably take a trip downtown as well.

    This is also an arrogant Harvard professor thinking he has the right to berate a local cop. He should learn some manners as well.

    There was some video on a local news sight about a woman who called in a domestic violence call and then SHE ended up being arrested because she was screaming at the cop.

    They ended up strip searching her at the station (no doubt for ‘her protection’). Not pretty stuff.

    Comment by daveg — 7/28/2009 @ 1:15 pm

  11. Again, I don’t disagree that Gates acted like an ass. But again, that’s not the point. This is:

    This is also an arrogant Harvard professor thinking he has the right to berate a local cop.

    Care to rephrase that? Because from where I’m sitting, he absolutely have the right to berate a local cop (within certain paramaters of course). In fact, not only is it NOT CRIMINAL to talk back to a cop or others in authority, it is one of America’s few explicitly protected rights.

    The common sense aspect of this is also overplayed. Yes, it is a bad idea to mouth off to a cop, for this exact reason, because, for the most part, citizens are willing to look a blind eye as police officers flagrantly trump up charges to arrest people for the sole reason that they’re personally pissed off at them or want to “teach them a lesson”. It is a bad idea, but not an illegal one.

    So it is a bad idea to mouth off to a cop NOT because it is illegal, but because, in cases like these, the cops are.

    We can all agree that Gates was acting classless and dumb and, at least in a broad karmic sense (but in that sense ONLY), probably got more or less what he deserved. My point is not that this stuff doesn’t happen, but that it shouldn’t, and when cops fudge the law for reasons based not on criminality but, let’s face it, personal vendetta, that corrodes the whole system. Why we as a culture have a fairly broad acceptance of this is beyond me.

    Comment by Brad — 7/28/2009 @ 1:39 pm

  12. People in general don’t deserve abuse at there workplace, including police officers.

    Let’s say I worked at the service counter at Target and someone came in to return something. When I refused to accept the item this person started yelling at me that I was a racist.

    After repeatedly stating that I was not and explaining the policy he would not stop. Then, after saying we would call the cops if he does not leave he continues screaming. After three such warning we call the cops and he is arrested.

    That is probably just cause to arrest him.

    Now, the cop was at Gates house, I understand that. But the officer is forced to work in the public by virtue of his job. He must go there when responding to a complaint.

    Again, that said, the police often go way to far. In another incident that comes to mind, an officer thought someone shortchanged him at McD’s (black worker). He goes behind the counter and demands his “twenty” and when the worker does not comply he arrests her.

    Later the camera shows he gave her a ten, as she thought.

    A normal citizen would never get that arrest made – the officer is abusing his power. This should be stopped.

    Where to draw the line? Hard to say…

    Comment by daveg — 7/28/2009 @ 3:52 pm

  13. ‘there’ should be ‘their’

    Comment by daveg — 7/28/2009 @ 3:53 pm

  14. You know, maybe the officer could fine the offender?

    It is a punishment and gives the cop a face saving out, but does not go so far as to arrest the person and put them in cuffs, which is a source of humiliation and really wastes everyone’s time.

    Comment by daveg — 7/28/2009 @ 5:22 pm

  15. The Target analogy doesn’t work, in large measure because you’re A. talking about being on somebody else’s property (and they can, presumably, just tell you to leave, and if you don’t, that IS illegal (unless you’re a cop)), B. taking it to an extreme. Threats, overwhelmingly obscenity, or “causing a scene” to an extent that is publicly disruptive, or in the case of a cop preventing him from doing his jobs, those are all arrestable offenses. Being rude or even verbally abusive is not. There is a line there that, when crossed, can be legitimately arrestable. But if you think all or even most instances of this kind of arrest are due to behavior that crosses that line, I’d take that bet.

    You say he was doing his job, and that is absolutely true. Nobody is saying the cop should not have responded to the complaint, and nobody (except perhaps Gates at the time) was saying he shouldn’t ascertain whether the complaint he was called on was accurate and whether there indeed was a crime taking place there. Critical detail: the arrest took place after all those duties were fulfilled. The cop had already DONE his job. It was over. He had responded to the complaint and got a (quite accurate) read on the situation, which was that no crime was in progress. But he didn’t like how he was being treated so he hung around to argue. When you boil it down, that’s exactly what it comes down to doesn’t it? Oh, there’s a veneer of “I had to make sure the man wasn’t going to hurt anybody in the agitated state he was in” or some such bullshit, and probably in an IA investigation that would fly, but you and I both know it’s bullshit (there’s a lot of this in cases like these: both parties arguing usually know exactly what went down and for what motives, but choose instead to keep the argument elevated to abstractions). The guy was mad and being a dick. In terms of enforcing the law, the correct response is to say “have a nice day sir” and walk away. Be the bigger man. You are, after all, the one with the gun on the man’s property.

    And finally, the biggest misnomer: “a normal citizen would never get that arrest made”. Do you believe that? I think it’s true that most of us have the good sense to not mouth off to a cop even though we have every legal right to, because there is the expectation that the cops might respond to that in an illegal or quasi-legal fashion (bustin’ out the italics now). That most of us EXPECT cops to potentially abuse their power in such a situation does not make the cop in the right here, nor for that matter does it make Gates in the wrong. It makes us whimpering cowards who refuse to hold people in authority to the higher standard that their positions demand if they are to have the respect that they deserve.

    There is also another piece here that annoys me: the law is, by nature, subjective. We, necessarily, give cops a certain leeway in their powers and hope their slip-ups iron-out on the back end (i.e. their superiors, or courts, or just good old fashioned public outcry will ensure that the misuses or mistakes are properly sanctioned one way or the other). To then take that leeway and use it to move the goalposts such that “disorderly conduct” becomes, in practice, synonymous with “officer discretion” is taking a necessary evil and instantiating it as a side effect, but as the point unto itself. There is a straight line between being willing to look the other way on this kind of thing and, say, the interstate commerce clause, or no longer requiring congressional authorization to go to war, or any other example of the will of the people “fudging” legal trifles to mean what they want them to mean. In this case, an uppity snob haranguing a perfectly reasonable police officer in the course of his duty gets his comeuppance. So what’s a little legalized authoritarianism?

    Comment by Brad — 7/28/2009 @ 8:53 pm

  16. Infidel goes there so I don’t have to.

    Some of the reaction on the right seems to follow the pattern: “This is a confrontation between a cop and a black guy, so the black guy must be in the wrong. There, now we have our conclusion, let’s see what evidence we can find to support it.” Rather odd coming from people so given to rhetoric about curbing arrogant state power.

    I found myself thinking the same thought when the usual suspects jumped all over this.

    Comment by Brad — 7/29/2009 @ 2:24 pm

  17. As is often the case in situations like this, I think the ‘black guy’ part of Infidel’s quote is irrelevant. That is, for the ‘right’, a confrontation between a cop and a means that the was in the wrong, is the standard conclusion.
    Does the ‘right’ ever side against the police or the military?

    Comment by Redland Jack — 7/30/2009 @ 1:41 am

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