Sergeant gets backup

Cambridge chief defends arrest but promises a review

Dina Rudick/Globe StaffCommissioner Robert C. Haas said “Every interaction has the potential to teach.’’ Dina Rudick/Globe StaffCommissioner Robert C. Haas said “Every interaction has the potential to teach.’’ (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
July 24, 2009

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This story was reported by Jonathan Saltzman, Maria Cramer, Tracy Jan, Meghan Irons, Milton J. Valencia, Matt Viser, and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Matt Collette. It was written by Saltzman.

The Cambridge police commissioner, breaking his public silence yesterday amid an increasingly vitriolic debate, strongly defended the actions of the sergeant who arrested Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. At the same time, Commissioner Robert C. Haas announced that an independent panel will review the confrontation between the black professor and the white officer, an incident President Obama criticized for a second straight day.

Haas described Sergeant James M. Crowley as a “stellar member’’ of the department who had “tried to deescalate the situation’’ before he arrested Gates last week on the porch of Gates’s Cambridge house. Haas emphatically said that Gates’s arrest was not racially tinged.

“He [Crowley] tried to move away from the situation, and, when he wasn’t successful, he used arrest as a last resort,’’ Haas said at a packed news conference at police headquarters. “I do not believe his actions were in any way racially motivated.’’

Nonetheless, Haas said he will appoint a panel of law enforcement experts in the next few days to analyze how his department handled the incident and to receive comments from the community.

“I have long held the view that every interaction has the potential to teach us lessons in how we conduct ourselves both professionally and personally,’’ he said. “I certainly feel that way now.’’

It was a day in which the two sides of the issue seemed only to become more entrenched. Speaking on a Boston television station last night, the 42-year-old Crowley repeated his assertions that he is not a racist and had nothing to apologize for.

Meanwhile, police unions declared that it was Crowley, not Gates, who was owed an apology, from the president and Governor Deval Patrick, who expressed support yesterday for Gates.

Obama, after saying in a nationally televised East Room press conference Tuesday night that Cambridge police “acted stupidly,’’ defended his view yesterday, telling ABC News, “I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who is in his own home.’’

Of Obama’s comments, Haas said, “It deeply hurts the pride of this agency.’’

Sergeant Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said that his union and the union that represents patrol officers plan to hold a press conference today in Cambridge to demand apologies from Obama and Patrick.

“He said the Cambridge police acted stupidly,’’ O’Connor said of the president. “Every single member of the Police Department . . . is insulted when the leader of the free world said you acted stupidly.’’

Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., one of Gates’s lawyers, said he was pleased that Cambridge police will convene a panel.

“I assume they will investigate the character and conduct of all the parties involved,’’ he said in a phone interview. “I applaud a thorough examination of policies, procedures, and practices. I think it will lead to some interesting findings and, hopefully, reforms in the way in which organizations within the city conduct their practices.’’

The issue is bigger than Gates and Crowley, Ogletree said, adding that he has received e-mails from all over the country from people who recounted incidents of racial profiling by police.

Gates, who could not be reached for comment, has threatened to sue the city over his arrest, even though police dropped the charge of disorderly conduct against him on Tuesday.

Asked whether Gates, who met with Ogletree yesterday afternoon, is still considering a lawsuit, Ogletree replied: “We’re not focusing on a lawsuit right now. We’re focusing on trying to move forward and clarifying what happened and how to repair the damage to personalities.’’

Speculation swirled yesterday over the existence of tapes of police radio transmissions that would show what was said - by whom and how loudly - during the episode in and outside Gates’s house.

Haas referred all news media requests for any tapes to the city solicitor.

Obama first waded into the controversy during his Wednesday night press conference devoted to healthcare.

In response to a question, the president, a Harvard Law School graduate, said he was a friend of the 58-year-old Gates, a leading authority on African-American history. He said he did not “know all the facts’’ or whether race played a role in the arrest of Gates by Crowley, who was investigating a burglary report.

But Obama said it is “just a fact’’ that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately stopped by police, evidence “that race remains a factor in our society.’’

Obama’s remarks, particularly his reference to the police acting “stupidly,’’ promptly drew criticism from police unions and other people, including some supporters.

“He conceded that he didn’t have all the facts, and indeed he didn’t,’’ said Alan J. McDonald, the lawyer for the union that represents Crowley. He said he and union members “were disappointed’’ in Obama’s remarks and added, “I think perhaps the president might have second thoughts about shooting from the hip.’’

Crowley, who teaches a course at the Lowell Police Academy on the dangers of racial profiling, told WHDH-TV last night that Obama’s comments offended not only him but also other officers.

“I was a little surprised and disappointed that the president, who didn’t have all the facts by his own admission, then weighed in on the events of that night and made a comment that you know, really offended not just officers in the Cambridge Police Department but officers across the country,’’ Crowley said.

He reiterated the charge made in his report that Gates grew unruly, and “the amount of negative things that aren’t true that he was saying about me at least warranted a response and allow people to see that I’m not a monster or the bigot or racist that he’s portrayed me to be. This is me.’’

In his remarks to ABC, made during a trip to Ohio to promote his healthcare plan, Obama also stressed that “I think that I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do.’’

“And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed,’’ the president said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling on Air Force One that the president’s criticism was not directed at Crowley personally.

“Let me be clear, he was not calling the officer stupid,’’ Gibbs said as Obama landed in Cleveland for two healthcare events. He said Obama felt that “at a certain point the situation got far out of hand’’ at Gates’s home.

Weighing in on the controversy yesterday, Patrick said he empathized with Gates, recalling his own experiences with racial profiling and “feeling powerless’’ when he was a black teenager at Milton Academy.

“In some ways, this is every black man’s nightmare and a reality for black men,’’ Patrick told a crush of reporters at an impromptu press conference at the State House.

The governor declined, however, to discuss Obama’s comments, saying the president was “quite capable of speaking for himself.’’

Amid the crossfire of opinions, Crowley continued to earn praise from all quarters of the law enforcement community.

He was so highly regarded by the prior police commissioner in Cambridge that he has spent the past five years teaching a class at the Lowell Police Academy to Cambridge and Lowell police cadets about how to avoid racial profiling, according to Thomas Fleming, academy director.

Fleming said the former Cambridge police commissioner, Ronnie Watson, handpicked Crowley and another officer, who is black, to jointly teach the class to about 60 cadets each year. The course meets four times a year, for three hours a session.

“He’s very well respected,’’ said Fleming, a Lowell police sergeant who has run the academy for 14 years. “He gets a very high evaluation from all the students. In my opinion, he’s a good role model for young officers. He’s a good cop.’’