Ogletree sees progress made, but more work left to do

Harvard professor Charles Ogletree says police can’t do their job without meaningful community cooperation. Harvard professor Charles Ogletree says police can’t do their job without meaningful community cooperation.
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / July 1, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree spoke yesterday with Globe higher education reporter Tracy Jan about his new book, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Race, Class and Crime in America,’’ and what he sees as the lessons learned from the high-profile case. The comments of Ogletree, who has served as Gates’ attorney, were edited for length.

Q. Why did you write the book?

A. I wanted to make sure that the public had a clearer sense of what actually happened on July 16, 2009, and appreciated exactly what professor Gates went through, the steps that Sergeant Crowley took, and whether or not there was a third way out of the situation that was not pursued.

Q. One year has passed since the arrest. Has anything changed as a result?

A. Yes. Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas and I have been meeting regularly to talk about these issues. Both of us are engaged in ways to improve police training. I’m trying to bring Boston’s Youth & Police in Partnership program to Cambridge and around the nation. It exposes young people to the positive roles police play in our community and gives them greater appreciation of how to be safe, secure, and free, even in the most tense urban settings.

Q. What about changes within the Harvard University police, which, as documented in your book, has also mistaken black students and professors for criminal suspects?

A. [Harvard University Police] Chief Bud Riley is obviously paying attention and taking lessons from this. They’re trying to get it right. The president [Drew Faust] is committed to having a harmonious community that respects the rights of the students and the authority of the police. Her leadership on this issue is central. Use these incidents as teachable moments going forward.

Q. Did Gates and Crowley become buddies following the infamous White House “beer summit’’?

A. Professor Gates proposed after the beer summit to go on a series of town hall meetings with Sergeant Crowley, but that just never materialized. I know they have been in constant contact, and they had one formal meal at River Gods [bar and restaurant in Cambridge] a few months ago. They are friendly and they are still talking, and I am very hopeful there can be a larger forum to bridge the gap between police and the community. It’s central to moving forward to have them both present and explain how they respect each other. They both want to put this matter behind them and get on with their lives. Professor Gates loves police. He admires what they do. He just never thought he’d among the criminals. It was a revelation that it can happen to anybody.

Q. What does Gates’ arrest tell us about race and class, and the criminal justice system?

A. We have a lot of work to do, and there is a lot of mistrust and fear on both sides. We can’t move forward without a meaningful dialogue. And it can’t start with adults. It needs to start with 7- and 8-year-olds in urban communities who have been conditioned to be fearful of police. Police have a largely impossible job of both trying to prevent crime and address crime when it’s committed, and they can’t do it without meaningful community cooperation.

Q. What do you think of the report by a special Cambridge commission released yesterday that placed responsibility on both men?

A. The report is important and timely in its recommendations about going forward and in improving the relations between law enforcement officers and the community. On the other hand, it’s disappointing, because the summary of the incident leaves off the most critical and dispositive factors of what occurred on July 16, 2009. For the report to say both Gates and Crowley had an equal opportunity to deescalate the situation is just breathtaking and unbelievable. The person with control and power to make an arrest that day was Sergeant James Crowley, not professor Gates. It was wrong of Crowley to arrest him.

Q. Does Gates plan on suing, as he originally threatened to do shortly after his arrest?

A. He has not mentioned pursuing it at all since his original concern. This is behind him. So I doubt that he will. But it’s completely up to him. I’ve had no indication that he will.

Q. Some may find it strange that you represent Gates, yet you’ve written this book. How could it possibly be fair?

A. It is odd in one sense. Often clients can’t say what they’d like to say, but it doesn’t mean they can’t have a voice. This book tells it like it is. Some things Gates will like, and some things he won’t like: I write that even though he has a right to say what he did to Crowley, demanding his name and badge number, I wouldn’t advise it. I tell my law students never, ever to ask a police officer for his name and badge number, because the answer is not going to be satisfactory. It’s just going to escalate the situation.

Tracy Jan can be reached at

Connect with

Twitter Follow us on @BostonUpdate, other Twitter accounts