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Chuck Wexler and John J. Farmer Jr.

Race — it’s not all black and white

By Chuck Wexler and John J. Farmer Jr.
July 17, 2010

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THE ARREST one year ago of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge ignited a national debate over race and law enforcement. In response, the Cambridge Review Committee was formed to examine the arrest and identify lessons that police departments could take from the incident.

At the committee’s first meeting last October, it was unclear if the dozen panelists would ever agree on the scope of the issues, much less any recommendations. Committee members brought a wide variety of perspectives based on their backgrounds as professors, law enforcement officials, and community relations specialists.

That first meeting was intense. The racial implications of the arrest were discussed immediately. One member said the incident was all about race. Another said it had nothing to do with race. We all wondered whether consensus was possible.

It became clear, however, that our first meeting simply reflected the conversation that was taking place across the country. Many people saw the incident as a racial issue. Others cited issues of class or “town/gown’’ conflicts that trouble many communities with large universities.

What the committee lacked at its first meeting was what we needed most: an understanding of what had actually happened on July 16, 2009. As the committee spent the next months gathering facts, we all gained new perspectives on the incident. We interviewed Professor Gates and Sergeant James Crowley; we let the facts drive us; and the consensus developed from those facts. The committee discovered that two well-regarded men could live through the same incident, but perceive what happened completely differently.

Crowley, responding to a 911 call about a possible crime in progress, approached the unknown situation in the way he had been taught — cautiously — and with a certain degree of trepidation. Gates opened the front door to his home and, incredulous that anyone might think he was a burglary suspect, refused the sergeant’s request to step outside. Both men were wary of one another. Within seconds, the encounter escalated into conflict. Was race a factor to be considered? Was respect a factor? Was communication an issue? Was class an issue? Did the officer have other options? Could this incident have been de-escalated by either Gates or Crowley? The answer to all of these questions is yes. But the committee found no indication from either man’s history or from the incident itself that Crowley was racist or engaged in racial profiling or that Gates was a “cop-hater.’’

The incident resonated across the country because it touched on issues that police departments and communities face every day. Police departments need to focus on “procedural justice’’ and “legitimacy,’’ which involve whether people think that the police treat them with dignity and respect and enforce the law even-handedly. However, these issues must be balanced against officer safety and tactical considerations. Officers must be better equipped with communications skills and tactics to de-escalate encounters with members of the public. And community members need to think about the inherent dangers that police officers face.

These lessons have sweeping implications for policing nationwide, because police departments need the support of their communities to be effective. Conflicts often occur when a police officer approaches a situation carefully and a citizen interprets the officer’s cautious manner as disrespectful. The balance between procedural justice and officer safety is a challenge facing communities across the country.

Police encounters with community members are fraught with the social tensions that exist in society at large. Those tensions cannot be eliminated from such encounters, but they can be mitigated. When people feel they are treated with respect by the police, issues like race and class become secondary. When people think the police are disrespectful, latent tensions over issues like race and class come to the forefront.

So after a year of work, the committee found that even in matters of race — perhaps especially in matters of race — things are not always black and white.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, served as chairman of the Cambridge Review Committee. John J. Farmer Jr., dean of Rutgers School of Law in Newark, served as a member of the Cambridge Review Committee.

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