Sergeant cleared in 8 citizen complaints

Cambridge police release details of Crowley’s record

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / August 20, 2009

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Eight citizen complaints have been filed against Cambridge police Sergeant James M. Crowley during his 11 years on the force, including two by black males who alleged racial bias, according to internal affairs reports made public yesterday.

Crowley, whose arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. last month sparked a national debate on race that was inadvertently stoked and then calmed by President Obama, was cleared of wrongdoing in all eight instances by internal affairs investigators, according to reports provided by the Police Department.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas wrote that Crowley has made or helped make 422 arrests, participated in about 800 criminal investigations, and issued 1,866 citations for motor vehicle infractions and other offenses.

“It is noteworthy that despite Sergeant Crowley’s numerous arrests and citations, only eight citizen complaints have been filed against him, which represents less than 1 percent of his interactions with the public,’’ Haas said in a three-page letter that accompanied the documents.

Crowley, who is white, arrested Gates, a black professor, and charged him with disorderly conduct during the investigation of a possible break-in at his house on July 16. Authorities later dropped the charges.

Five of the eight complaints provided by Haas involved allegations that Crowley was rude to people he encountered, including motorists whom he gave tickets. But two complaints also contained accusations of racial bias.

In a 1999 complaint, a black man ticketed for driving the wrong way down a one-way street and driving while drinking alcohol said Crowley sarcastically referred to his passenger as a “homeboy.’’

And in a 2002 complaint, another driver said Crowley and other officers wrongly detained him and a friend briefly because one of the men supposedly matched the description of a light-skinned black man who had just robbed a nearby video store.

“As a young African-American male, I am especially concerned by the lack of restraint the officers demonstrated in this situation,’’ wrote the driver, whose name was redacted in the file, as were all names of complainants. “I am curious if the description of ‘black male’ immediately suspends the rights of all brown-skinned individuals within a 10-block radius.’’

James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, said it is difficult to say whether eight complaints represents a significant number over 11 years, adding that it depends on a variety of factors, including where Crowley worked in Cambridge and what time of day.

But Fox said it was hardly surprising that some complainants alleged racial bias. “Given that law enforcement is still primarily white and they are often interacting with minority citizens, these interactions have a potential for racial conflict, whether it be bias or misunderstanding,’’ he said.

Crowley has spent the last five years teaching a class at the Lowell Police Academy to Cambridge and Lowell police cadets about how to avoid racial profiling, and the director told the Globe last month that the sergeant was a “role model for young officers.’’

Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights lawyer who has represented numerous plaintiffs in suits alleging police misconduct, said eight complaints seemed like a lot.

“Most police officers go through their careers with zero or one citizen complaints,’’ he said. “And if you’ve got four people who say the officer is rude, you start to think the officer is not as polite as he should be.’’

Crowley did not return a phone message left at his house yesterday seeking comment.

Neither Gates nor his lawyer, Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., could be reached.

Haas, who released the reports in response to a public records request by the Globe, also provided copies of two commendations that Crowley received, one in 1999 for helping to arrest a suspect who had fled after a burglary and another in 2000 for recognizing that a person brought to the police station was not intoxicated but needed immediate treatment for diabetes.

The file also included a “life-saving’’ award that Crowley, a certified emergency medical technician, received for performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a woman struck by a car in 2003, as well as letters from other law enforcement agencies in recent years praising him.

Haas, who announced on July 23 that an independent panel will review the confrontation between Crowley and Gates, declined to release investigative records concerning the incident. He said making those documents public would impede the panel’s work.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Saltzman can be reached at