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Both Gates and Cambridge police sergeant missed a chance to de-escalate, review finds

Posted by Your Town  June 30, 2010 11:20 AM

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Alex Brandon/AP

President Obama, Vice President Biden, Gates and Crowley met for the beer summit. Gates and Crowley later met for another beer in Cambridge, and Crowley gave him a gift: the handcuffs he had used during the arrest.

Both Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley missed opportunities to de-escalate the situation that led to Gates's arrest last year at his home, an expert review has found.

"The committee believes that the incident was sparked by misunderstandings and failed communications between the two men," the blue-ribbon Cambridge Review Committee said in a report released this morning.

Saying that the situation had been "avoidable," the committee found in a 60-page report that "Sergeant Crowley and professor Gates each missed opportunities to 'ratchet down' the situation and end it peacefully."

The arrest of the prominent black professor at his home by the white police sergeant who was investigating a report of a possible break-in on July 16 generated headlines and sparked a national debate over police relations with minority communities. Even President Obama got involved, stepping in to calm the waters by hosting a "beer summit" at the White House.

The committee noted that both men felt a certain degree of fear of each other.

But once he saw Gates's identification card, Crowley "could have taken greater pains to explain the uncertainty and potential dangers of responding to a serious crime-in-progress call" and why "police officers must focus on the safety of the public and their own safety, and why his need to assess and mitigate any risks may have caused him to adopt a seemingly abrupt tone," the report said.

Gates, for his part, "could have tried to understand the situation from the point of view of a police officer responding to a 911 call about a break-in in progress, and could have spoken respectfully to Sergeant Crowley and accommodated his request to step outside at the beginning of their encounter," the report said.

The report said "communications clearly were a problem" in the incident, with the police officer saying he "couldn't get a word in edgewise" and the professor reporting that he considered the officer "unresponsive to his questions."

The arrest may have been legal, the report said, but it observed that some police actions that are conducted according to policy "are not necessarily the best outcomes to a situation and may undermine the relationship between the police and the communities they serve."

The report said the incident showed the need for police officers and community members to share responsibility for understanding and communicating with each other.

"If each police officer and each member of the community can think in terms of sharing responsibility for showing one another respect and understanding, the entire functioning of a police department will improve," the report said.

The report made a number of recommendations, some of them aimed at police departments nationwide, some of them specific to Cambridge.

The recommendations included:

-- Police and community members should strive to de-escalate the level of tension in their encounters with each other.

-- Police should recognize the importance of delivering "procedural justice" to community members -- a sense of being treated with dignity and respect -- when they take action, while the public should comply with officers' instructions and make complaints later in other venues.

-- Police should expand the use of programs, such as citizen police academies, that help residents understand what it is like to be a police officer.

After the controversy exploded, the city's police commissioner recommended to the city manager that a review be conducted to develop lessons learned, not only for Cambridge but for other communities. The panel, headed by Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, included a dozen members who were experts in areas including police and criminal justice, race, and conflict resolution.

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