Joan Vennochi

The ‘avoidable’ arrest

The Gates-Crowley report ducks the central issue of the arrest: skin color

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 11, 2010

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A NEW report on last summer’s arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white Cambridge Police sergeant ducks the main theme of their famous face-off.

Skin color.

That’s what made it international news. That’s what drew in President Obama, who got caught up in the story when he said the Cambridge police acted “stupidly’’ and then wiggled out of it by hosting a White House beer summit.

But the 60-page report on the show-down between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley barely mentions race. Instead, it’s all about respect and the need for more of it from citizens and law enforcement officials.

“The issues of race and class get pushed to the side if people feel like they are being respected,’’ said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, and chairman of the Cambridge Review Committee, which studied the Gates-Crowley drama. “When they’re not, issues of race and class become apparent.’’ While he concedes race could be “a part’’ of this case, the broader issue is the need to teach police officers how to “rachet things down.’’

Crowley was responding to a 911 call, after a neighbor spotted Gates and a car-service driver forcing open the door to a home. Gates was returning from a trip to China.

What happened between Gates and Crowley varies, according to who tells the story.

Crowley said he asked Gates to step onto the porch and Gates refused. Crowley said he told him that he was investigating a report of a break-in and Gates said, “Why, because I am a black man in America?’’ He ultimately produced a Harvard ID.

Gates said he told Crowley that he lived there and was a Harvard faculty member. He said he went to his kitchen to get his wallet, showing his Harvard identification and driver’s license. He said he asked for Crowley’s name and badge number, but the officer never responded. Gates said he then said, “You’re not responding because I am a black man and you’re a white officer.’’

The report states, “Within six minutes, Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct and placed him in handcuffs at his own home.’’

The report goes to great lengths to blame each man for behavior that each perceived as disrespectful. Readers are also cautioned “against attempting to read between the lines of this report.’’

Those who try will be tempted to reach this conclusion: The Cambridge Review Committee does not really believe Crowley should have arrested Gates. Panel members just didn’t want to say that.

The panel calls the arrest “avoidable.’’ During the first few minutes of their encounter, Crowley had legitimate concerns about safety and security, but they dissipated once Gates produced identification, however grudgingly. The report concludes that “Sergeant Crowley missed opportunities to find a better outcome’’ and also notes that Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas “considers the arrest an aberration that does not reflect how the police department sees itself or generally does its job.’’

The report also points out what should be a foundation of modern police training: “Ideally, police officers and civilians alike will conduct themselves reasonably and be willing to de-escalate potentially tense encounters. But if the citizen does not do so, the officer must be trained to take the higher road and always work to de-escalate hostilities and communicate reasonably.’’

Translation: rude, obnoxious behavior by any citizen, including a Harvard professor, black or white, is not, on its own, a crime. That’s the underlying message for police, everywhere.

The report makes brief mention of an analysis of disorderly conduct arrests by the Cambridge Police Department, noting the possibility of a higher likelihood of such arrests as retribution for citizen “backtalk’’ or disrespect of police.

But what made this a national Rorschach test was the race of the cranky professor and the cranky cop.

It’s clear from his comments to Crowley, that skin color triggered Gates’ reaction to the police officer. Only Crowley knows what triggered his reaction to Gates. Was it back-talk? Skin color? The combination?

Avoiding the central question does not make it go away. Would the outcome in this case be different if the professor had been white?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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