Harvard scholar’s arrest was avoidable

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 1, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — A Harvard scholar and the police sergeant who arrested him last July after a confrontation outside his home both missed opportunities to ‘‘ratchet down’’ the situation and end the encounter more calmly, according to a review of the case released Wednesday.

The independent review said ‘‘misunderstandings and failed communications’’ and a ‘‘certain degree of fear’’ each man had for the other led to the six-minute dispute that ended with the renowned black scholar being placed in handcuffs by the veteran white Cambridge police sergeant.

Sgt. James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct at his Cambridge home July 16 while investigating a possible burglary. Gates alleged he was a victim of racial profiling. Charges were later dropped.

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The conflict sparked a national debate on race relations, and President Obama invited both men to the White House for a ‘‘beer summit.’’

‘‘The committee believes if Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates had been able to make their positions understood, and had made greater efforts to de-escalate the tensions of the encounter, the incident could have been resolved quickly and peacefully,’’ said Charles Wexler, chairman of a 12-member panel that studied the case and wrote the review.

The panel, assembled in September, was made up of law enforcement personnel, academics, and experts on race relations and conflict resolution, none of whom had direct ties to the Cambridge Police Department.

The situation at Gates’ home quickly escalated when it shouldn’t have, according to the review. The report suggests that Crowley could have more clearly explained what he was doing and why he was doing it, especially after being shown Gates’ license and university ID. For his part, Gates could have used a more respectful tone to address the officer.

Neither man, in interviews with the panel, said he would have acted differently.

The incident was a ‘‘textbook example of how a police officer and a member of the community can clash if they do not share a sense of responsibility,’’ according to the report.

Gates turned down a request to comment on the report when contacted via e-mail, deferring comments to his lawyer and fellow Harvard professor Charles Ogletree.

Ogletree said while the report contained some ‘‘impressive recommendations about going forward,’’ he was disappointed that it left out contradictions between the police accounts of the call they got from a passer-by to report the incident and the actual transcript of her call. For example, the passer-by never mentioned that the people she saw on the porch of the home were black and never made any assumptions of criminality, Ogletree said.

He said it also plays down the fact that Gates was arrested after showing Crowley his license, with his address, to prove his identity.

‘‘(Police) put an unreasonable burden on a citizen in what he should have done. He did everything he could have done,’’ Ogletree said, adding later that ‘‘(Gates) was amazingly outraged that the officer didn’t believe he was who he said he was.’’

In a statement, Crowley said he learned a lot from the process but does not plan to discuss it further.

‘‘I certainly don’t expect anyone to fully understand the dynamics of the encounter when they weren’t there, but I was pleased that the committee took the time to speak with me and give my account of the arrest,’’ Crowley said in the statement. ‘‘No one that knows me thought that the arrest was based on race in any way. Arrests are based strictly on behavior.’’

The panel made 10 recommendations for avoiding similar incidents in the future, including better training for police in de-escalating conflicts, as well as more outreach to the public and academic community to teach understanding of the police department’s job.

Crowley ‘‘was acting as he was trained,’’ Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas said Wednesday.

But ‘‘there’s got to be alternatives,’’ said Haas. ‘‘There has got to be other ways that we can deal with these kinds of these situations.’’

Asked if the review committee or the police department reached out to the White House on the report, Haas smiled and said no.

Wexler says both men realized the incident was deteriorating within six to eight seconds, but saw the situation differently and didn’t understand the other’s point of view. ‘‘Both of them looked at the same situation completely differently,’’ Wexler said.

Wexler said the case was not just about race but class and police authority.

Gates and Crowley have since met many times and have developed ‘‘a friendly relationship,’’ Ogletree said.