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Which 'ism' on display at Harvard arrest?

Posted By Alan Keyes On 07/24/2009 @ 12:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Though now scrubbed from the Boston Globe website where it was originally posted, what appears to be a .pdf copy of the incident report (#9005127) filed by the officer involved in the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Gates is available online. Before being swept up in the indignant frenzy being whipped up over this supposed outrage, it’s worth perusing.

The police officer responded to an apparent break-in in progress at Gates’ Ware Street address in Cambridge, Mass., called in by a passing observer, who was on the scene when he arrived. She said that her suspicions were aroused when she observed one of two black males on the porch of the Ware street residence “wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.” After listening to her account, the author of the unofficially published incident report writes that as he “turned and faced the door, I could see an older black male standing in the foyer. … I made this observation through the glass paned front door.”

The author further states:

As I stood in plain view of this man, later identified as Gates, I asked if he would step out onto the porch and speak with me. He replied “no I will not.” He then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was “Sgt. Crowley from the Cambridge Police” and that I was “investigating a report of a break in progress” at the residence. While I was making this statement, Gates opened the front door and exclaimed “why, because I’m a black man in America?” I then asked Gates if there was anyone else in the residence. While yelling, he told me that it was none of my business and accused me of being a racist police officer. I assured Gates that I was responding to a citizen’s call to the Cambridge Police and that the caller was outside as we spoke. Gates seemed to ignore me and picked up a cordless telephone and dialed an unknown telephone number. As he did so, I radioed on channel 1 that I was off in the residence with someone who appeared to be a resident but very uncooperative. I then overheard Gates asking the person on the other end of his telephone call to “get the chief” and “what’s the chief’s name?” Gates was telling the person on the other end of the call that he was dealing with a racist police officer in his home. Gates then turned to me and told me that I had no idea who I was “messing” with and that I had not heard the last of it. While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me. I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification so that I could verify that he resided at ___ Ware Street and so that I could radio my findings to ECC. Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification, but then did supply me with a Harvard University identification card. Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University Police.

Following this initial exchange, the officer states that he attempted to identify himself to Gates as requested, but that “Gates began to yell over my spoken words by accusing me of being a racist police officer and leveling threats that he wasn’t someone to mess with. … When Gates asked a third time for my name, I explained to him that I had provided it at his request two separate times. Gates continued to yell at me. I told Gates that I was leaving his residence and that if he had any other questions regarding the matter, I would speak with him outside of the residence.” After this, the reporting officer states, Gates followed the officer outside, continuing his remonstrations. There the arrest eventually took place.

If this matter is properly handled, at the appropriate stage of the legal proceedings the verified official incident report will be reviewed and the details of the police officer’s account will be substantiated or refuted. As I read this unofficially published version, I found myself sharing the officer’s reported surprise at the behavior he ascribes to Gates in the initial moments of their encounter. Some years ago, I found myself locked out of my home. I eventually forced my way in through the basement, feeling both foolish and a bit apprehensive as the alarm sounded. I rushed toward the basement door, only belatedly remembering that we always lock it before leaving the house. That meant that I couldn’t reach the system’s data entry pad in time to disarm the alarm. The police would be called, and I would have to explain things to them.

Of course, since I was in my own home, I didn’t see any real problem with that. In fact, I felt reassured by the fact that, if I had been a burglar, their prompt response would have prevented a successful theft. As related in this account, no sense of reassurance and gratitude is evident in professor Gates’ response. It also seems entirely absent from most of the reaction and commentary on his behalf in the media. Was it a bad thing that a passing citizen was concerned enough by the appearance of a break-in to notify the police? Would an apathetic, “it’s not my business” shrug have been the preferable response? Should the police have ignored the report of a break-in at this black academic’s home, as they are so often accused of ignoring reports of black on black crime in predominantly black communities?

If Gates came to the door, thanked the police officer for the prompt response and showed his ID while explaining the appearance of a break-in, how could any incident have occurred? The resident of a home has a stake in the police officer’s prompt performance of his duty, so there’s nothing obsequious or inappropriate about being polite and appreciative toward someone who’s doing exactly what a sensible resident would want them to do.

As far as I have read, no one denies that there was the plausible appearance of a break-in. The frenzied effort to tag as racist the responding officer (or the citizen who reported the suspicious activity) can serve no useful purpose. In fact, university communities generally encourage their members to report suspicious activities, and police in those communities pride themselves on the kind of prompt response that reassures people of the safety of their persons and belongings. I have always assumed that even Harvard professors have enough common sense to agree with such policies. This whole episode reminds me of the time a black congresswoman allegedly struck a Capitol Hill police officer who stopped her because she was not wearing the congressional pin that identifies people as members of Congress (who were permitted to enter Capitol Hill office buildings without going through security). It didn’t take long for many to realize that the only -ism involved in that episode was narcissism. But surely no academic has ever shown traces of that disorder.


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