Could the headline-making arrest last July of Harvard African-American Studies Professor Henry Louis Gates by a white Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer be justified? While the official civil-rights narrative continues to cast Gates as a victim, the facts, as National Legal and Policy Center reported in detail at the time, appear to vindicate Police Sergeant James Crowley. Now a new report by a Boston University-affiliated journalism think tank is providing even more fuel for the latter view. The study, which examined arrests for disorderly conduct in Cambridge over several years, concludes that local police have not engaged in a pattern of racial profiling. One hopes that President Obama, who played no small role in this affair, will give it a close read.
A recap is in order. On the afternoon of July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates, fresh from a research trip to China, found the front door of his home jammed. He proceeded to the back door, and with the help of his chauffeur, forced his way in. A passing woman noticed the suspicious behavior and called police. When officers arrived, Gates already was inside and on the phone. He told the cops, one of whom was black, that he had entered through the back door and shut off the alarm. It was an honest mistake on the part of the police. But Gates didn’t see it that way. He launched into a tirade at the lead officer, Sgt. Crowley, accusing him of racial profiling. Not only did he not calm down, he also refused to produce an ID upon request. Rather than answer routine questions, Gates shouted, “This is what happens to black men in America!,” and “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” After following Crowley out the front porch calling him a “racist,” police arrested him for disorderly conduct. He was taken down to the station and put in a temporary holding cell. Police released him after he paid a $40 fee and scheduled him for an arraignment in August.
Middlesex County prosecutors soon dropped the charge. The City of Cambridge termed the arrest “regrettable and unfortunate.” Gates, however, would not let it go. He proclaimed: “There are 1 million black men in the prison system, and…I became one of them.” Black civil rights leaders across the country, from Jesse Jackson to Earl Graves to Al Sharpton, denounced the arrest as another example of the second-class citizenship still accorded blacks. President Obama criticized Crowley for acting “stupidly.” Backtracking somewhat in the face of public criticism for the remark, he invited Crowley and Gates to Washington for a White House “beer summit.” The conversation at this sudsy truce proved civil and at times even friendly. But the underlying suspicion remained intact: Gates was arrested because of his race, not his actions. Had he been white, he wouldn’t have been arrested.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a journalism collective housed at Boston University’s College of Communication, has concluded otherwise. Its new report, which analyzed arrest data on 392 adults in Cambridge during 2004-09 for disorderly conduct, found that the most common reasons for arrest were screaming and/or cursing in front of police – in other words, for Henry Louis Gates-like behavior. Here’s a summary:
The most striking conclusion of the review of Cambridge police data is that the majority of those arrested for disorderly conduct were allegedly yelling, often screaming obscenities, in front of police before the handcuffs snapped shut. More than 60 percent of the disorderly arrests review by the center involved some sort of allegedly inflammatory speech, such as talking back to police, more commonly known as “contempt of cop.”
Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas, though not commenting on the Gates case, emphasized that speech alone is never the basis for an arrest. “You have a situation where you are trying to stop behavior, and entangled in that behavior you have people saying things,” remarked Haas. “It’s the behavior officers are trying to deal with, and it’s the behavior that officers are trying to stop that they believe really creates social disharmony. They have an obligation to stop it.”
Now it’s true that police everywhere may be prone to making an arrest based on highly subjective judgments. “Disorderly conduct,” unfortunately, can be a pretext for handcuffing a reasonably well-behaved person. Yet the Gates case made news specifically because of its racial angle. Sgt. Crowley wasn’t just an overzealous cop, critics charged. He was a racist cop, someone who had it in for Professor Gates because he was black. But the survey data suggest that blacks are more prone than whites to engaging in disruptive behavior when confronted by cops. Among arrestees, 57 percent were white and 34 percent were black. By contrast, recent Census data indicate Cambridge is 68 percent white and 12 percent black. Unless one believes blacks in that city have been targeted for arrest, the racial breakdown suggests that blacks present extra challenges during police questioning, a possibility even the study downplayed. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting’s Rochelle Sharpe and Maggie Mulvihill stated the arrest breakdown “almost exactly mirrored the racial composition that Cambridge police investigated.” For the record, 34 percent is a lot higher than 12 percent. As for the “racist” Sgt. Crowley, Gates was his only arrest for disorderly conduct during the study time frame.
The Gates arrest has had local repercussions. Now whenever Cambridge cops charge someone with disorderly conduct, they must thoroughly document the reason for the arrest. Officer also must receive special training for dealing with difficult situations. Were that not enough, a 12-member nationwide-based committee of law enforcement specialists and academics later this summer will release a report on “lessons learned” from the incident. And the city’s police review board plans to release its own report. If this is what constitutes a “conversation” on race, Cambridge police officers seem to be more targets than participants. That looks like a familiar pattern in a lot of other places, too.