One reason I love living in Santa Monica is we basically have no street crime. Instead of petty crooks, we have uniformed officers who usually combine an overwhelming show of force with a surprisingly personal touch on their stops and calls. And when you know the SMPD sends three cruisers to respond to a report of a homeless person sleeping in a doorway, you’d have to be an idiot to commit a real crime here. Plus, actual courtesy from cops is a nice change from my hometown police department in Boston. I note my appreciation for the SMPD because it’s possible my agreeing with our president’s critique of the Cambridge police department and its handling of the arrest of America’s preeminent black scholar, Professor Henry Louis Gates, might be misunderstood.
Unless you’ve been in Alaska for the last week, you know that Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley responded to a reported break-in at Gates’ house, discovered that the only person in the house was the legal resident, and placed that legal resident under arrest anyway — all within about five minutes. You’ve probably also heard President Obama’s answer to the question of what the arrest says about race relations in America, “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 is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”
Say what you want about whether or not a president should have answered the question at all, the only part of his answer that any reasonable person could take issue with is the word “stupidly.” And if you’re going to do that, then what you’re saying is Crowley’s actions during those five minutes were “smart.” A second look at what happened doesn’t back that up.
The 911 call Crowley was responding to started with, “I don’t know what’s happening.” The caller, Lucia Whalen, went on to say, “I just had an older woman standing here and she had noticed two gentlemen trying to get in (Gates’ house). And they kind of had to barge in and they broke the screen door and they finally got in. When I had looked … closer to the house a little bit after the gentlemen were already in the house, I noticed two suitcases. So, I’m not sure if this is two individuals who … live there.”
When asked about ethnicity she said, “one looked kind of Hispanic but I’m not really sure. … I just saw it from a distance.” Yet when Crowley arrived on the scene and spoke to her, he says she “went on to tell me that she observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch.”
I know what I’d call a guy who, within seconds, turns two men (one possibly Hispanic) in the house with suitcases into two males (both black) on the porch with backpacks — and the word “smart” doesn’t rush to mind.
In an interview, Crowley said he didn’t think Gates “looked like somebody who would break into a house” and was surprised that the professor was “very upset, very put off that I was there in the first place.” Crowley said, “when I asked for ID … he asked for my ID. I thought, ‘that’s not an ordinary request … but if that’s all the guy needs … I’ll show it to him.’” As Crowley should know, and as the professor probably does know, police officers in Massachusetts are legally required to present ID when requested. Gates held up his end of the ID bargain, Crowley didn’t — and that’s what most likely set Gates off.
In Crowley’s defense, he teaches other officers about how to avoid racial profiling and by all reports doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. That said, not profiling the one man in the city of Cambridge with the DA, chief of police, mayor, governor, and president in his Fave Five isn’t exactly … what’s the word I’m looking for?
Whatever your thoughts on what this arrest means, there are a few things we can all agree on. Number one, the president shouldn’t have weighed in on a local case involving a friend about which he didn’t have all the facts. Number two, Gates shouldn’t have flown off the handle talking to Crowley. Number three, Crowley should have just left when he determined there was no break-in. Number four, when they have their long-awaited beer together, they should all drink from mugs that say “I’m With Stupid” on them.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who hates abuses of police power a little more than he hates racism. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.