Saturday, July 25, 2009

Recipe for Stupidly: Gates + Cambridge Police + Obama

President Barack Obama took immediate heat for his comment during a press conference that the Cambridge Massachusetts police "acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home” when they arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct after he forced open a door at his own home.

The question here is – was anyone really stupid? The answer is YES, everyone was.

The Cambridge Police, legitimately responding to a call from a concerned citizen about a burglary in process, did the right thing by checking things out. But, they met their match when they came upon Gates, who is highly educated about many things, including the law. Sergeant Crowley admits that he asked Gates to step out of the house, and this may have been Crowley's mistake. Any halfway intelligent person knows that once you step out of your home, the police can arrest you. I suspect that Gates knew that was exactly what Crowley was going to do. Since Gates knew he was in his own home, I don’t blame him for not wanting to cooperate on that issue.

However, the reports from the police go on to indicate that Gates was uncooperative from the get go. It is possible that Gates’ behavior only made the police more suspicious that Gates was a burglar.

Adding fuel to the fire was President Obama’s response during a press conference; a truthful, non-politician response that used one “stupid” word.

A side issue here is the concerned neighbor who called in the burglary, who apparently doesn’t even know what her neighbor looks like.

In my opinion, everyone in the situation acted without completely engaging their brains. If the police account is correct, Gates should have kept his cool, but Sergeant Crowley should not have found it suspicious that Gates refused to step outside. You do not have to step out of your house when the police ask you to, period. Crowley should know this and this should have raised a flag that he was not dealing with just some stupid burglar. If Gates' account is correct, then the police overreacted and they should have backed off when Gates showed he did live in the house. President Obama was asked a question about the matter, admitted he knew Gates personally, and Obama responded as anyone with a personal connection and personal experience with encountering police would respond. He gave an honest, unedited answer, unlike most politicians. His choice of the word “stupidly” was probably not the right one, but it was directionally correct. This is one of those cases when the forthright president should zip his lips and give a noncommittal answer until he gets all the facts.

I have the utmost respect for the police department, but also understand that they are human beings too and sometimes they make errors in judgment. Maybe in this case, if rumored radio transmissions from this event are made public, their judgment may be vindicated. But, based on what I have read about this situation and from the extensive TV coverage, it seems to me that in this case, the police didn’t like the fact that Gates challenged them. Imagine if the police, who are armed. approached YOUR home, asked YOU to step outside, and didn’t like the fact that you refused (which is your right to do so) – how would you feel? This, in my opinion, may be the bigger issue here over the claims of racial bias. The police should be respected, but citizens also have rights. The police should be held to a higher standard because they are supposed to know and follow the law. In this case, it seems to me that when police are armed and they approach someone who is in their own home, that the police exercise extreme caution and make sure they follow the law to the letter. They should also develop thicker skin and not get suspicious when a citizen knows the law and choses to follow it. People should continue to repect the badge, but make sure they know their own rights. Knowledge is power.

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Michael said...

Well put and I agree all parties acted stupidly. However it is a shame that law enforcement tends to act like this in many situation, if for no other reason then to manage the line of the law and create an anxiety promoting situation that can provoke a response. A lot of that is driven by what has happened over the years with rulings against Law Enforcement, but it is a shame on how that plays out in many situations.

Carol said...

Great posting, however could you explain this, to your british friends?

"Any halfway intelligent person knows that once you step out of your home, the police can arrest you."

Can't they just knock on your door, and then when you open it, arrest you?

The Frequent Critic said...

Hi Carol - if the police have an arrest warrant for you, it is recommended you do step out of the house so they have no cause to go INTO the house and get you, which gives them the right to search your home. But if they have no arrest warrant, you don't have to go with them and they can't take you with them unless you step out of your home. This website explains it really well:

"Of course, it’s important to make sure that the police do have an arrest warrant for you, before leaving the safety of your home. If you answer the door and the police say, “Come on outside, so we can talk to you,” then it’s likely that they don’t have a warrant and are just trying to lure you out—where they can easily detain, question and pat search you, in the hope of finding grounds for arrest. You should say no, close the door, and call a criminal defense attorney.

Remember that when the officers do have an arrest warrant for you, hiding in your house won’t help, because police are allowed to force their way in to get you if they believe you’re in there. In that case, you might as well go outside and let them take you into custody, without letting them search your house or break your front door. (And at this point you should say: I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer.)"