>> Monday, July 27, 2009

So, I've been trying really, really hard not to say anything about the recent arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. since my sister sent me an e-mail about it shortly before it hit the web and became a Sudden Big Deal. I have a lot of respect for Professor Gates, he seems like a good guy, and reservations about cops, but I wanted to wait until things settled before I said anything, if I said anything. I kind of figured, actually, that the truth of what happened was probably in the middle of things somewhere, and that there was probably some degree of blame to be directed the Professor's way and some to be levied against the cop.

I'm a bit surprised today to discover that I was right to wait and wrong about the blame. I'm talking about the news today that the person who called the "break-in" at Professor Gates' home apparently never mentioned the race of the men she saw, which gives a credibility to the profiling claim that I frankly didn't think it had. Really, I was inclined to think this was anything but a profiling case, and maybe I was pretty wrong.

Let's rewind, just in case you missed it. The story goes something like this: Professor Gates, an esteemed Harvard professor, comes back home from a trip to China. He finds that the front door of his house in Cambridge is stuck, possibly from a robbery attempt, so he and his driver try to force the door. Failing, the Professor goes around and lets himself in the back. Meanwhile, a woman working in the neighborhood sees two men forcing the door of a residence, and calls 911; according to an AP report:

The caller, Lucia Whalen, says she saw two men pushing on the door of the house. She tells police she is not sure if the men live there or not. When pressed for a description by a dispatcher, she says one of the men may have been Hispanic.

A Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, shows up and asks Professor Gates for identification, which the Professor produces. Professor Gates evidently accuses the officer of hassling him because he's black, the officer continues to insist on ID and, per the same AP account, a recording released by the Cambridge Police Department reveals:

Sgt. James Crowley said he was with a man who claims to live in the house and with identification showing he was Gates. Crowley said the man was not cooperating and told the dispatcher to "keep the cars coming."

There are further words between the Professor and the Sergeant. The Sergeant finally leaves, and Professor Gates apparently follows, and is arrested on his front porch for Disorderly Conduct, not for breaking into his own home (as has often been reported). The charge is subsequently dismissed.

Now, let's cover a few things right away: Disorderly Conduct and Resisting Arrest are basically bullshit charges--while there are incidents where the charges are legitimate, I suspect most defense attorneys and even a few honest prosecutors will agree with me that these two charges are red flags, charges that officers file to cover their asses when they've crossed a line or someone is threatening their badge, the very mistake Professor Gates made.1 So I wasn't really that inclined to put much stock in the Sergeant's version (with its deliciously improbable and hard-to-credit account of code-shifting) to begin with. That having been said, I was also inclined to think Professor Gates was probably not as meek as he and his lawyer have portrayed it--my guess is he was pretty pissed off, justified or not--and certainly the main photograph from the arrest that has circulated appears to show the Professor yelling on his porch.

Anyway, what was clear before today was that while this might have been a case of an arrogant Harvard prof having an unfortunate run-in with an arrogant cop, it wasn't racial profiling in any meaningful sense: until today, the account was that Sgt. Crowley was responding to a report of two black guys breaking into a house and when he gets to the house, he finds a black guy inside; it would be reasonable for him to at least see if the person he finds is a possible suspect, just as it would be reasonable if the report were two white guys breaking into a house to investigate a white guy inside. Where we'd be talking about "racial profiling," the practice of targeting minorities for harassment or investigation solely or primarily because of race without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, would be if the report was two white guys breaking into a house and the officer harasses a black guy (who therefore clearly isn't his suspect) anyway, or if the report was two guys breaking into a house, I don't know, maybe one of them is Hispanic and then the officer harasses a black guy--

Oh. Wait. Ouch. See what I mean? If Crowley has a report of one or more black dudes doing something at a location and therefore investigates one or more black dudes at that location, it's not profiling. It might be lamentably lazy investigation, or an indicator that race remains too big a consideration in our culture and eclipses potentially more-useful descriptors like height or hair color or even clothing (not to mention really good, individualized details like scars and tattoos), but it isn't a "racial" thing, at least not in any kind of discriminatory sense. But if Crowley has no mention of a suspect's race or a contradicting description, and he singles out a black guy anyway--well, that's a fucking problem.2 And that's starting to look like that's what happened.

The best benefit-of-the-doubt I can give Sgt. Crowley would be if the 911 operator introduced the "two black men," although it fails to justify Crowley's apparent arrogance in continuing to express suspicions about Gates' identification and claims of residence.

That last point is pretty critical, actually: regardless of whether or not the officer is a racist or behaved in a racist manner, I'm personally satisfied that he acted like an arrogant fuck who went in with a scenario all sketched-out in his mind and then got pissy when his ass wasn't kissed as wetly as he'd hoped (or at all). I advise people to be polite to cops: aside from the fact that it's generally good to be polite to people, cops have guns and Tasers and mace and handcuffs and the ability to lock you up for all sorts of things that a jury may-or-may-not believe you really did. Professor Gates might have been well-served if he'd bitten his tongue until the guy left. That said, the good cops I know are, among other qualities, officers who know how to react to somebody giving them a hard time with grace and humor; I'm also satisfied that even if Professor Gates was belligerent, Sgt. Crowley could have defused the situation very quickly by taking everything in stride, but (for whatever reason) didn't do so.

Actually, that's one of the reasons I ended up commenting on l'affaire Gates: the New York Times has this annoying headline, "Cops 'don't get paid to be publicly abused'". Horseshit. Of course they do, just like people who work in customer relations, food services, the DMV renewal line, or any other public job. Maybe they don't get paid enough, and I'm not saying anybody should abuse anyone else, but the bottom line is that a job that brings you in contact with dozens or hundreds of people a day is statistically inevitable to bring you into contact with assholes (not that Professor Gates, who seems like a decent guy, is one of them). And police officers have a job that brings them into frequent contact with not just life's assholes, but with people who maybe aren't assholes when they're sober or on their meds or fully-rested but who become assholes when they're drunk, nuts or exhausted. That's part of the job description, tough if you can't deal with that. An asshole who doesn't need to be wearing a badge is thus quoted by the Times:

"I wouldn’t back down if there's a crowd gathering," the Brooklyn officer said, in part out of concern of sending a message of weakness that could haunt another officer later. "We’re a band of brothers. We have to be there to help each other out. If there’s a group and they're throwing out slurs and stuff, you have to handle it."

...and a finer example of the siege mentality that leads to officers perjuring themselves to cover for an out-of-line colleague or trumping up a Resist charge out of a citizen exercising his Constitutional rights you're unlikely to find. Meanwhile, an officer who is likely a credit to his profession:

"We don't get to tell people what they want to hear," said the Los Angeles officer, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being quoted on duty. "Whether we’re giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we're not dealing with people at their best, and if you don’t have a tough skin, then you shouldn't be a cop."

Bingbingbingbing! We have a winner! Hey, it's a tough job. I wouldn't want to do it either. But an elephant's hide is part of the business, and if you don't have it, you're in the wrong line-of-work.

Here's the most disturbing paragraph in the whole Times piece, by the way:

The line of when to put on handcuffs is a personal and blurry one, varying among officers in the same city, the same precinct, even the same patrol car.

What. The. Fuck. "Blurry"? No, the line is "Do you have probable cause to make an arrest?" that's where the fucking line is, mon frere. I'll grant you that the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't always been effective in explaining what that actually means, so if you want to say that, well I feel your pain, I do. But if you don't know that the wriggly blurred line is probable cause to make an arrest, apply for a fucking job in North Korea, already. Seriously.3

This was the other thing that set me off today and prompted this post: Representative Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan Republican, is apparently all set to introduce a resolution calling for President Obama to apologize to Sgt. Crowley. Again with the periodized what-the-fucking. First, let's just say that while the President's initial take may have been premature, the latest news certainly seems to be shifting the douchiness meter against the Sarge, sorry. He was just coming off as an arrogant, out-of-control cop who handled a tense situation badly, now it's starting to look like maybe he really is a bigot, too. Secondly, even if you do give Sgt. Crowley's account more credit than it seems due, what the President originally said was:

"I don’t know–-not having been there and not seeing all the facts--what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two that he Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

...and you could certainly agree that it wasn't exactly brilliant of the Cambridge Police Department to arrest one of the nation's most prominent African-American scholars on the porch of his home after some sort of "misunderstanding" about what he was doing in his own house. Whether the Cambridge Police Department in general or Sgt. Crowley in person were right or wrong, the net result is mostly embarrassing to the Cambridge Police, a department that apparently has been criticized before for racial insensitivity; in short, at the very best the whole affair is a kind of "own goal" the Cambridge Police scored on themselves (at worst, of course, it's rank racism).

But thirdly, and most importantly: what the hell is it with the Republicans and resolutions to put words in other people's mouths? First it was that business with them wanting Democrats to rename themselves the "Godless Anarchist Socialist Fascist Rim-Jobbers" or whatever it was, now it's "Hey, betcha I can make you apologize!" Betcha you can't, jackass. Rep. McCotter, if you want to pass a resolution supporting Sgt. Crowley, or supporting Cambridge PD, or supporting cops in general, or, hell, calling the President a smelly poo-poo head, fine, whatever, knock yourself out.4 But this "resolve that you say blah" crapola was lame when you guys did it at your convention or bake-off or whatever you called it. It's less becoming in the halls of Congress, and you ought to pull your head out of your ass and smell the shame. Sheesh.

1Professor Gates asked for the officer's badge number, which he's evidently entitled to under Massachusetts law. Nonetheless it's a bad idea to say this even if you can under your local laws--you're telegraphing that you're planning on filing a complaint, and more than a few officers will go into ass-covering mode at that point, and will look to preemptively charge you (say, for instance, with Disorderly Conduct) so that they can go on to claim your complaint is merely retaliatory.

If you're going to file a complaint, don't say you're going to file a complaint, just do it.

There are other ways to get the officer's identity, particularly if you're dealing with a smaller police department. A phone call might suffice, particularly if it comes from your attorney. You might be able to simply ask the officer for his business card if he has one. Or you might be able to ask for a copy of the police report, depending. If all else fails, rely on memory before you send a coded message that you're calling the guy's boss first chance you have.

2Christopher Hitchens, in a piece of rare perspicacity, recounts a classic example of profiling along these exact lines:

I was once mugged by a white man on the Lower East Side of New York, and then, having given my evidence, was laboriously shown a whole photo album of black "perps" at the local station house. The absurdity of the exercise lay not just in the inability of a half-trained and uncultured force to believe what I was telling them, but in the certainty that their stupidity was helping the guilty party to make a getaway.

3That paragraph in the Times pissed me off. Can you tell?

4Preferably with a brick, ya jerkoff.


Random Michelle K Monday, July 27, 2009 at 7:43:00 PM EDT  

Something I think was brushed over is that he had just gotten home from the airport after flying home from China.

Even if Gates is normally polite to officers, I can see how anyone might be cranky after that long of a flight.

Jim Wright Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 1:54:00 AM EDT  

My thoughts on this run pretty much parallel to yours, Eric.

The most interesting part of the whole thing though is the idea that McCotter puts forward - the one where Congress can force the President to apologize to a citizen of the United States for a mild insult.

Because if that's the case then I'm going to have my congressman introduce a resolution having George Fucking Bush apologize to me for insulting my intelligence, honor, and the founding ideals of the United States.

ntsc Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 4:48:00 AM EDT  

There was an article in the Times on Tuesday last, quoting the police sargent as 'being confused' by the confrontation.

A sargent who makes such of confession is on the face of it and by their own admission incompetent.

vince Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 12:05:00 PM EDT  

Please, Jim, do you really think you could get that to happen. But I like the idea.

ntsc, I do work for several police departments, and while I know that confusion at a potential crime scene with potential suspects can be confusing under some circumstances, I don't see why there should have been any confusion after Gates identified himself, and what happened afterwards was the absolutely the result of incompetence.

While I know some excellent officers, I know some pretty crappy ones that have done some pretty stupid things as well.

Tom Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 1:16:00 PM EDT  

Two things to add.

Whalen was apparently a go-between for an "elderly lady" who was the one who saw the 2 men on the porch originally, who then asked for someone else to call 911. Whalen was this "someone else" which is why she hadn't seen Gates and couldn't describe him.

Sgt Crowley's "I'll talk to you more about this outside" comments seem to have been an attempt to get Gates to come out of his house to where Crowley could arrest him for disorderly conduct, which he couln't do while Gates was inside his own home, which is a pretty clear indication that Crowley knew he was harassing Gates inside his own home.

Eric Tuesday, July 28, 2009 at 1:31:00 PM EDT  

Tom, that's a very good point about Crowley that I probably should have added--thank you for bringing it up. It indeed does appear that Crowley was trying to bait Professor Gates outside so he could charge him.

Michelle also mentions something else that I think tends to cut against Crowley: if Professor Gates was a bit surly, he seems to have had more excuse for it than most--aside from being in his own home, the man was presumably jet-lagged (he's also said he was sick with a cold or something, which wouldn't help if he was already tired from the trip). Even if Gates was exhausted, sick, and offended, Sgt. Crowley could have politely said, "Sir, here's my card, I'll be heading out but please understand I'll need to make some calls and run some things from my car, which will be right out front if you need me," and then gone to his car to wait for support (if needed, which is dubious), to wait for the Harvard campus cops, or whatever he still needed to do (if anything). In any case, Crowley could have taken a higher road and has no apparent excuse not to have done so.

neurondoc Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 10:23:00 PM EDT  

Good post.

Funnily, I've heard stories about "Skip Gates" for years without realizing who he was. My dad knows his brother well and knew him well enough back in the day. My dad's take on the situation was that Gates was baiting the cop, for the purpose of the attention, which I found somewhat mind twisting.

Parents come up with the weirdest shit out of left field.

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