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The blame game

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New Cambridge report gives equal blame to both Harvard professor and Cambridge police officer

King Solomon threatened to split the baby. The Cambridge Review Committee chose to split the blame.

Satisfying some and angering others, the panel convened to review last summer’s handcuffing of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., concluded that both the esteemed scholar and the arresting officer missed opportunities to de-escalate the confrontation, which resulted in disorderly conduct charges, later dismissed, against Gates.

The lingering question for some observers, including Gates’ attorney, was whether there was any real equivalence to the options of the chairman of Harvard’s African Studies Department — equipped with a reason for jimmying the front door of his Ware Street home, a quick wit, a strong set of lungs, and the willingness to use both — and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, who showed up carrying handcuffs and broad powers of discretion to imprison a suspect.

The July 16, 2009 incident, played out on a quiet side-street one block from the Harvard Faculty Club, attracted immediate and massive press attention, which built to a fever pitch after President Barack Obama criticized Crowley during off-hand remarks at a press conference for arresting Gates on the doorstep of his own home.

The perception of the White House as taking sides in the exchange between the white cop and the black professor undermined Obama’s image as a post-racial icon and resulted in the president inviting the men to the Rose Garden for the infamous “beer summit.” With cameras rolling, Obama acted as both peacemaker and bartender for antagonists polite enough to joke about the incident but adamant enough to not yield to the other’s perception of what went wrong during the six-minute contretemps.

After the Washington meeting, Gates and Crowley continued to find common ground, even joining for a beer at the River Gods in Cambridge, where the veteran cop presented the former burglary suspect with the manacles used to restrain him. But their views of the encounter remained as wide apart as the persistent gulf between black and white judgments of police treatment of African Americans, particularly black men, in supposedly post-racial America.

The Cambridge Police Department empanelled the 13-member review committee to address both the Gates encounter and the broader questions it raised during the 11-month inquiry. The report, released last week, dodged the question of whether the arrest was justified, choosing instead to characterize the incident as “avoidable” while offering a series of recommendations to ensure that the fire next time burns not quite so high.

Crowley, responding to a 911 call to the Ware Street address where a neighbor spotted Gates and a car-service driver forcing open the front door, was understandably wary of the two men, said the committee. Once the equally wary professor produced identification and explained the circumstances, “the potential threat was diminished and the behavior of both men should have begun to change,” it said. “But instead of de-escalating, both men continued to escalate the encounter.”

According to tape recordings, eyewitness accounts and the police report, Gates loudly challenged Crowley’s questioning, saying, “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” and emerged from the house accusing Crowley of racial bias and asking for his name and badge number. The officer then placed him under arrest for disorderly conduct.

Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, Gates’ attorney and author of the just-published “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America,” praised the committee for offering reforms “necessary to improve relationships between the Cambridge community and police department.”

However, he added, the report was “sorely disappointing … in its recitation of the facts, and applies equal blame to the conduct” of Gates and Crowley.

“Most important, while the report mentions that Professor Gates provided ample identification — including a photograph on his Harvard University ID and a photograph and address on his Massachusetts driver’s license — the committee’s report offered no explanation of why Sgt. Crowley did not accept these identification cards as proof that Professor Gates was a lawful resident of this house, or why he continued his investigation after being presented with proof of Professor Gates’ identify,” said Ogletree.

For his part, Crowley rejected the notion that Gates’ race played any role in his handling of the incident. “No one that knows me thought that the arrest was based on race in any way,” he said in a statement. “Arrests are based strictly on behavior.”

The review committee interviewed both men and acknowledged — without attempting to reconcile — the gap in perceptions. “Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates clearly differ in their interpretation of what happened,” it said. “Two well-regarded people — one white, one black; one an experienced and well-trained police sergeant, one an eminent scholar — experienced the same event and drew radically different conclusions about the implications of what happened.”

Marian Darlington-Hope, a Cambridge resident who served on the panel, defended the committee’s decision not to judge whether the Gates arrest was justified. “I heard both men talk and I kept switching sides. When you hear both men’s accounts, it’s just not that simple,” she said. “Listening to both and listening to the tapes, I would say the incident could have been avoided but I don’t think we could come to the conclusion that it was justified or unjustified.”

Other observers were not so cautious. Harvard Foundation director Allen Counter, a neuroscientist who is suing the Cambridge Police Department for false imprisonment, commented, “Law-abiding African Americans should not be arrested at the whim of white police officers. The grossly disparate statistics between the arrest rates of black and white Americans reflect an unregulated police power capable of scaring a black person for life – with impunity.”

Citing figures showing disproportionate stop-and-frisk rates for young black men in New York City, writer Ishmael Reed — who has been critical of Gates’ standing as a so-called darling of white intellectuals — said the review committee’s report “gives yet another wink and a nod to racial profiling and police fabrication.”

In a statement provided to the Banner, the Oakland-based author expressed regret that Gates did not become more outspoken after his arrest. “Given the immense power that the establishment has given to Professor Gates, he had an opportunity to shine a light on the police abuses of black and Hispanic citizens across the nation, but one can’t blame him for not doing so,” said Reed. “Police usually engage in a vendetta against their critics while the white majority looks the other way.”

The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community, called the furor over the arrest “more of a celebrity event than an event that involved the issues of race and class.”

Rivers said the incident drew enormous attention “because celebrity academics do not usually get arrested outside their homes.”

“What is indubitably true is that Professor Gates should not have been arrested for breathing while black outside his house,” said Rivers.

Former Cambridge Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves, a long-time critic of police practices, called the report recommendations little more than boilerplate and said he was embarrassed for the city’s handling of the incident. “Cambridge has a lot of positives,” said the senior member of the city council, “but I consider this one to head up the negative column.”

Recommendations from the report included the need for more public education of police procedures, more police training in defusing conflicts, developing more specific guidelines in the use of police discretion, and greater community involvement in police initiatives.