Gates case sergeant asked to speak at graduation

But state officials overrule request by police cadets

President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden (left) shared beers with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (second from left) and Sergeant James Crowley in July. President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden (left) shared beers with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (second from left) and Sergeant James Crowley in July. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press/File)
By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / January 22, 2010

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Six months after Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley’s arrest of a black Harvard professor sparked a national debate over race relations, state officials vetoed an invitation last week to have him speak at the graduation of a class of police cadets.

The snub offended Crowley’s brother, Daniel, who said he was told that the class of 54 cadets from various municipal police departments voted for his brother to speak at their April 30 graduation from the Randolph Regional Police Training Academy, but was overruled.

“My brother is a consummate professional,’’ said Crowley, a Middlesex deputy sheriff. “If there’s going to be someone to speak to what can possibly happen in your career as a police officer, I cannot think of a better speaker.’’

James Crowley declined to comment through a spokesman.

In an e-mail to the Globe, Daniel Zivkovich, executive director of the Municipal Police Training Committee, said, “We believe that graduations are to highlight the hard work and accomplishments of the graduates and felt that, had Sergeant Crowley been the speaker, he would become the focus of the events, instead of the graduates. But if the cadets want Sergeant Crowley as their commencement speaker, we will honor their wish.’’

Zivkovich said in the e-mail that Crowley’s name had been raised as a potential speaker for the graduation ceremony, but the academy had not extended an invitation. He said officials routinely discuss suggested speakers, and “we have final approval.’’

Crowley’s brother said he was approached recently by one of the recruits, who told him the class had voted for his brother to be the graduation’s keynote speaker and asked whether he would relay the request to him.

“My brother said he was very honored to be asked and would be more than happy to oblige them,’’ Crowley said. But, last week, Crowley said, the recruit called and told him that state officials had advised the training academy director that Governor Deval Patrick had rejected Sergeant Crowley as a graduation speaker because he was too controversial.

But Juan Martinez, Patrick’s spokesman, said the governor was not involved in the decision to reject Crowley as a potential graduation speaker. “The governor was not aware of the issue at all,’’ he said.

On July 16, Crowley, a white officer who trained recruits to avoid racial profiling, arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation’s top scholars on race relations, on a disorderly conduct charge after responding to a report of a possible burglary at the professor’s home in Cambridge. Gates, who had just arrived home from a trip abroad and had trouble getting into his house because the door was jammed, accused Crowley of racial profiling. The officer said Gates was belligerent, uncooperative, and initially refused to show identification. Prosecutors immediately dropped the charge against Gates.

The case created a national furor, which escalated when President Obama weighed in during a press conference, saying police had “acted stupidly.’’ The president later said he regretted his statement and last summer invited Crowley and Gates to the White House, where they shared beers and talked. In October, Crowley and Gates, who had promised to keep talking, met at a pub in Cambridge.

Daniel Crowley noted that just last week, his brother and Gates were honored by a student group at Lincoln-Sudbury High School with the 23d annual Martin Luther King Action Award for demonstrating a commitment to the ideals expressed by King, and in particular for their work on race relations before and after the confrontation last summer.

“I just think that they [state officials] were rash in their decision not to allow my brother to speak at graduation,’’ Crowley said. “I don’t think there’s a better person in law enforcement to address a group of new police officers, given everything he went through last summer.’’

Officer Stephen Killion, president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association, described Crowley as a fair and well-respected member of law enforcement.

“He is not as controversial as someone is making him out to be,’’ Killion said. “I think he would be a great speaker . . . to tell those recruits coming out on the street what to look out for.’’