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by Peter Moskos

July 21, 2009

Henry Louis Gates Jr. Arrested

Apparently for pissing off a Cambridge cop who responded to a burglary call. Gates had sort of broken into his own house because the key didn't work. A witness called police. Words are exchanged and Gates gets cuffed for dis con.

It's hard to overstate just how esteemed of an intellectual Harvard Professor Gates is.

If you're a police officer and run into the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research--even if he is rude to you--best to let it slide. Really.

But this arrest has as much to do with class conflict as it does with race. There's a big blue-collar/egghead divide back in what used to be my home town. I can imagine the unfortunate glee the cop felt as he locked up this big-shot intellectual. That glee is probably tempered significantly by national news coverage.

The AP story by Melissa Trujillo.

[Update: The police report is here. All charges have been dropped. And Al Sharpton chimes in. Read Gates' reply in gawker.]


Jaguar said...

best to let it slide

Absolutely not. I don't care who somebody is. If he breaks the law, he's treated accordingly. This gentleman was not arrested because he was black or because of his class; he was arrested because he broke the law. Being a celebrity is irrelevant.

But this arrest has a much to do with class conflict as it does with race.

Jumping to conclusions without hearing the officer's testimony displays both a failure in logic and in thinking. You've reached a decision based on media reports alone. That's called "Trial by Headline."

You're accusing the police here of bias; however, one might wonder if you were free from bias yourself. You see "black man versus police," and you quickly side with the black man without reviewing the evidence.

hb said...

Jaguar, you're a cop, so surely you know that it's not as simple as "you break the law, you get arrested." I think Peter's suggesting that this might have been an instance where the Sergeant would have been better off exercising his discretion not to arrest a guy for yelling at him.

I've read the police report (available at the Globe's website) and it barely makes out a prima facie case for disorderly conduct. Of course, since the Sergeant could at least write it that way, he's technically fine. But you gotta ask yourself, was this Sergeant, the Cambridge PD, and the public best served by this arrest? Or did he let his anger at getting called a racist interfere with his better judgment?

CPM said...

I just read the story, If this guy is so smart, why is he arguing with the police? They got a complaint. Whether it was two white males or two black males, the police have reasonable suspicious to check to see if a crime has occurred and who this person is. He should be tankful the police are checking the area. Just because he is black, he can get the word out sooner than the case can come to court.

hb said...

Put it this way: no one likes getting harassed or verbally abused. Prof. Gates probably didn't like getting accused of robbing his own house. This was likely a new experience for him.

The Sergent probably didn't like getting accused loudly of racism, when to his mind he was just following up on a 911 call with a description for a black male. Cops get yelled at all the time, of course, and it's part of the job description in the hood that you can't let people do that and get away with it. If you just take it one day, you're liable to get shot the next. In this section of Cambridge, Massaschusetts, though, with the man's Harvard ID in your hand, you're probably better off just taking the abuse from a professor and letting it roll off your back. He's not going to shoot you tomorrow if you do, but you will become a national embarrassment to your bosses tomorrow if you decide to lock him up.

CPM said...

Of coarse this goes back Moskos book. The failure of 911. Get back to foot patrol ( or bikes) and know the people in your neighborhood!!! Which I agree with. Maybe this would have gone smoother..... I work in a small tourist town with some high end people, largely white. I/we have very few problem when we identify people. Even the international touriest/workers. Of coarse I know just above everyone anyway.....

David Bratzer said...

" If this guy is so smart, why is he arguing with the police?"

CPM this might be tough to believe but sometimes smart people do argue with the police.

Or, put another way, just because you disagree with a cop does not mean you're stupid.

Sarge said...

Peter Moskos is accusing the police of unfair treatment here, but his remedy to this matter would be for the police to use unfair treatment. He's arguing that an intellectual and head of a university program should receive preferential treatment and the officer should "let is slide." If the suspect was an arc welder or swept sidewalks, should he be subjected to different treatment?

Moskos is also assuming with no evidence that the arresting officer is anti-intellectual. Moskos apparently can read the arresting officer's mind when he presumes "I can imagine the unfortunate glee the cop felt as he locked up this big shot intellectual." How do you know what he was thinking? How is presuming police are anti-intellectual any different than presuming that African-Americans are automatically suspect?

HB, you're correct that police have discretion. Officer discretion is exactly that -- he or she decides, not you. He's highly trained when to use discretion, you're not -- you're an accountant. As well, Moskos is no longer a police officer, so his opinion is irrelevant too. When I arrest someone, how another cop in another city might evaluate my arrest is irrelevant to me. I'm using my discretion, not someone else's.

It was the officer's conclusion that the law was broken, and now the prosecutorial and judicial system will review this matter accordingly. There's no defense to a charge like this of "even if the law was broken, the officer should have used his discretion and not arrested him."

Here's a copy of the arrest report for those who want to read it:


Anonymous said...

Good job, officer! Let it slide because it's Gates? Why should a member of Harvard's ruling caste, a member of its powerful elite, be treated any differently by the cops than the average guy who gets the cops called on him because he's bashing in his own front door.

The main line of logic in Gates' argument is that the police would not have been called to investigate a burglary in the first place if the people breaking down the door where white. So it follows that they were racist because a citizen called the police to ask for help because *she* saw two *black* guys breaking down a door. The fact that the police answered this 911 call from a citizen in the first place indicates that the police are racist, buttreesed by the crazy, nonsensical, unobserved hypothetical that they would not have even been called in the first place if Gates was white. How is any of this jibberish relevant? Can anyone make more sense of it?

This logic is horrible. If you really look at what Gates says, and what his supporters have also argued, it's all babble. It further erodes my respect for humanities professors. If he is the best man in his field, and he can't even make sense when he speaks about race and policing, then his field is bunk and he's a charlatan.

So we have this guy who has a huge sense of entitlement and a race card up his sleeve just dying to yell at any cop who tries in any way to do any type of policework that might inconvenience him in any manner.

A woman calls the cops because she fears a burglary is in progress--two guys are banging down the front door to a house during the day, which is when virtually all residential burglaries happen-- and when the police show up, instead of being a decent, respectful human being and cooperating with what would have otherwise been a brief investigation, Gates starts screaming at the police, calling them racists, and refusing to cooperate with them. Even as things progress, he continues yelling and attempting to escalate the situation. Then, while acting like a disorderly maniac, he is shocked to find that that he is arrested for acting like a disorderly maniac.

Let's be clear about something: Cambridge is a shithole in comparison to a lot of other nice, smart towns, and this is one of the reasons why. It is dirty, overrun by homeless and drug addicts who piss everywhere, steal whatever isn't locked down, and commit more serious crimes as well. While I lived there, I was personally burglarized and also interceded in an armed robbery of a Harvard student, meanwhile hopping over puddles of piss on the main avenues. The problem is that the citizenry there have neutered the police, saying any action they take is necessarily racist and oppressive because they are often enforcing the law against minorities.

To stop this from happening again, I think that when the cops encounter a realy smart person with an attitude, they should back out of the room, bowing and avoiding eye contact, while issuing a grovelling apology, saying things like "please forgive me, master, this dirty, worthless cop was blinded by your wisdom and greatness."

In the meanime, I challenge Gates to utter a few continuous sentences about this encounter that make some sort of sense in terms of leading us to his desired conclusions about the racist conspiracy against him.

Chris R said...

I acknowledge that racial profiling exists. I wish it didn't.

Last time I mouthed off to the police, they beat me with their baton... and I'm white.

Looking back, I understand that I was at fault for resisting arrest. I was angry and was not doing what they asked me to do.

If I had done what they asked, the outcome would have been different.

I understand that in order for the system to work; police need to be able to exert their authority. Sometimes that authority goes to their head, much like profiling makes some people very sensitive.

Ronk said...

The person who called the police was visiting from out of town. If anyone was profiling it was her.

But she wasn't. She saw what she thought was a break in. I suppose she thought it was better to be safe than sorry. Maybe she thought that if they did own the house they would say so to the police, but he didn't. He could have given his ID but he didn't until it escalated. He was angry and wanted to make a point but he could have handled this better.

Police are generally assholes but in this case the police were just doing there job and the good doctor was acting like a child. "You don't know who you're messing with" What an arrogant statement.

I would personally be thankful if my neighbor called the police on someone breaking into my house. even if that person was me.

PCM said...

Ronk, yeah, I too was thinking that I hope my neighbors will call police if somebody is forcing open my front door. Even if it's me.

PCM said...

I always find it strange when people are so certain about their beliefs that the see things I didn't write and know deep down what I really mean.

Hell, I don't even know what I really mean half the time.

Jaguar, I never accused the police of bias. Where do you get that from and why do you assume that?

I’m not defending Gates. From what I can tell the officer was doing his job and duty investigating a burglary call. I can't speak to his tone and demeanor or desire to want to teach Gates a lesson for yelling at him. But overall, having been a police officer and having lived in Cambridge, I give Cambridge police officers very high marks for professionalism (and, having read this police report, excellent writing skills!).

Cambridge can be a tough little city to police. Cambridge is a lot more working class than people know (though less than it used to be). But there's certainly plenty of instinctive anti-police bias to go around. Like it or not, Gates is part of Harvard's ruling caste elite. And if you want to treat him like a common man, do so at your own risk.

"He was arrested because he broke the law." Really? Disorderly conduct (and loitering, too) is an entirely discretionary arrest. I've been there. You've been there. Let's not pretend otherwise. The crime was pissing off a cop and yelling at him in public, in front of other officers.

Put it in a chain-of-command context. If your police chief yells at you on the street, do you lock him up for disorderly conduct? No, because he's the chief. He gets special treatment. So do other cops (and then it’s called “professional courtesy”). So do your friends and people who are really deferential and nice to police (let’s just call it giving them a break). Cops can and should exercise discretion all the time. Nothing wrong with that. But let's not pretend police are blind enforcers of the law.

I got news for you: rich people kind of are above the law. That’s why you won’t meet too many of them in prison. Right or wrong, if you're getting yelled at by a man who can pick up the phone and reach the mayor, the police chief (though he wasn't too successful with that one), and probably the President of these United States, perhaps you should think twice before slapping the cuffs on.

Everybody is equal under the law? Noble spirit. But no. Like it or not, different people living in different neighborhoods get different police treatment. We all know that the way we police in the ghetto wouldn't be tolerated in "nice" parts of town. And, of course, the way we police "nice" parts of town might very well get police killed in the ghetto.

The idea of wanting to “showing those damn eggheads that they’re not above the law” is exactly the kind of class resentment I’m talking about. Don't think that's right? Get real. In the real world, the rich and powerful get better treatment. If you don’t like it, become a communist or join a commune.

hb seems to reads me just right. I don’t think Gates behaved admirably. But regardless, the police chief does not want to field calls from the national press because somebody decided to lock Gates up. A minor disorder conduct turn into a real red ball? Only in Cambridge. But it terms of CYA, the officer’s “A” is well “C’d”: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a two-page typed report for disorderly conduct!

Some of what police are paid to do is judge who they’re dealing with and diffuse situations accordingly. They call it verbal judo here in NYC. But call it want you want, at some point it tastes awfully like eating a shit sandwich.

If that’s not for you, work midnights in Baltimore’s Eastern. I know of people being locked up for disorderly conduct in their own home. But more proper would be to ask a person to talk to you outside before cuffing them for being disorderly. We didn’t take shit from nobody. It just never made the news.

CPM said...

Charges are all ready dropped..... He's a quote from the internet article.

"The city of Cambridge issued a statement Tuesday saying the arrest "was regrettable and unfortunate." The statement says the police and Gates agreed dropping the charge was a just resolution".

I sure the DA did not want the on Cable news for the next month.

PCM- I like you last comment and believe thats what you were trying to say the first time.

PCM said...

Thanks, CPM.

Dropping charges does not mean the officer necessarily did anything wrong. But there's a difference between right, wrong, and dumb.

The DA didn't want to touch this with a ten-foot pole.

I can empathize with an officer being called a racist for doing his job. I've been there.

But like it or not, Gates does get special treatment. That's why the charges were dropped. And no, that doesn't really bother me.

geoff said...

When I read the police report early this morning I though Gates yelling at the police making "yo' mama" references what the hells going on. Then I read his lawyer's statement and noted it make clear that Gates was just home from a long flight back from China. I suspect the professor was worn-out, tired, maybe even a little disoriented and definitely jet-lagged. Being belligerent with the police made sense to me then even though it's a dump thing to do.

PCM said...

And after a flight from China, the guy couldn't even get into his own house! No doubt he was tired and pissed off long before the cops showed up.

We've all had bad days, but if you take out your bad day on a cop, there's a good chance you'll end up in jail.

Every police/public interaction ends up with the suspect deferring to police authority, leaving the scene, or getting locked up. Right or wrong, there really is no other option.

PCM said...

CPM (no relation) has a good point from way up: that this illustrates the failure of 911 and rapid response.

Cops are in the situation all the time, a person, sometimes an idiot, calls 911 and gives a mistaken description of a misunderstood situation.

A cop finds him or herself in a situation thinking one thing--in this case burglary in progress--and finding another, a pissed off and tired man in his own house.

You'd like to think, in the ideal world, that if there were a cop walking the beat, the officer could have helped Professor Gates into his own home.

Jaguar said...

Mr. Moskos, truth be told, you have rather limited experience as a police officer. Two years gave you an opportunity to see more than most civilians but far less than most police officers.

While your "cop in the hood" and "The Wire" self-promotional comparisons might impress intellectuals, your logic and thinking is still flawed.

How you might have reacted is not how Gates's arresting officer might react or how I might react. You're projecting your own prejudices and limitations into another person.

And please spare us the "work midnights in Baltimore’s Eastern" hyperbole. Your two years as a rookie on the beat might impress the cocktail party set, but it doesn't wow those who have spent far more years in equally dangerous precincts.

runescape gold said...

Of course they are deferring to the police we have spent a lot of time constructing the Black man as a criminal the fact that he is a Harvard professor is probably just some sort of aberration.
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PCM said...

Hey Jaguar! Guess what? You're right.

I'm not trying to wow you. I certainly hope you and most police officer know more than I do about policing. Not only that, but you're stronger than me and could probably whip my ass (but I'd put up a good fight).

I'm here trying to have an intelligent discussion about police issues. And I think, as someone who has walked the walk, I can contribute something.

If you want to contribute, too, I welcome you.

All I ask is that you actually read what I write before criticizing me for something I never said. Is that asking too much?

Anonymous said...

Since we're trying to peek into the minds of the players in this story; maybe the esteemd Mr. Gates suffers from the "This cop better know who the f*** I am" syndrome. This disease has been observed in celebrities, political hacks and many high ranking off-duty police bosses when encountering on-duty cops. It sometimes results in very negative initial confrontations, but cooler heads usually prevail.
If this report is to be believed, Gates had absolutely no argument, especially not a race- based argument, with the cops' investigation. Obviously Gates couldn't dial back the machismo a little bit and needed to follow the cop out of the house to prove that he was the more important person.
The fact is Gates was going to make some sort of complaint against the Sgt. anyway, so is it really hard to see why the Sgt. wanted to make the arrest and document the behavior of Mr. Gates? I'm not trying to question your experience Peter, but having been in vaguely similar situations, I don't think the Sgt. was feeling "glee", I think he was feeling like he had his back against the wall and had to do something. I agree that once the storm hit and his bosses started needing their diapers changed, he regretted doing it. But the Sgt. should be highly regarded by the guys he works with for having taken a risk to do the right thing. Maybe his actions will stop the next cop from being publicly berated by someone who feels the law doesn't apply to them.
The funny thing is that the term "racist" which Mr.Gates and others have succesfully made into a scarlet letter seems to be what made the Sgt. and others so sensitive. Kharma or just unintended consequences?

hb said...


I'll just say, great, great points: those are all plausible interpretations of the situation as it's been reported to us. I don't know that much about policing (though I'm not an accountant--that's just a default), but it seems quite plausible to me that an accusation as serious as racism might induce a police officer to take a step, like arrest, that he might not otherwise want to do. And, hey, maybe the accusation racist is such a deeply offensive term that this cop responded in such a serious fashion. I honestly don't know.

But, because your explanations require so much complexity of thought, and so much analysis, my gut feeling is that that isn't what happened. Not that my gut feeling matters that much, but I still think this cop would have been better off taking the following route: HLG Jr. complained about my questioning of him in response to a 911 call; he called me racist; I inquired after his ID and went away. That tactic would have been better for this particular Sgt., I think, than arresting the guy, even if that provided a chance to document it.

Why not just write an email to the other officer, documenting your side of the story? Or find a friend who's a notary and writing an affidavit? Both would have served the purpose of recording the officer's side of the story (which is all the police report does), without escalating the story to national news. As it is, this Sgt. screwed himself without any real lesson taught to Prof. Gates.

PCM said...

I, for one, would just roll my eyes at being called a racist. If you work where I worked, it was pretty much par for the course.

But I’ve seen other officers confront charges of racism by getting into it with the accuser, but rationally and even politely. Surprisingly, this often had very positive results.

But here’s what’s interesting, if you imply that race has anything with me stopping your car, you just guaranteed yourself a ticket. A ticket for whatever I did pull you over for. And I guarantee it wasn’t because you were black.

Had you kept your mouth shut and had a valid license and registration, I would issue a warning more often than not.

What’s strange is that you, as the officer, have to arrest somebody or give them a ticket if they call you a racist or threaten to complain about. Even if that wasn’t your original plan.

Because if there is a complaint against you, that ticket or arrest is proof that you were acting lawfully and not being a racist.

When you get asked (sometimes months later), “why did you stop that car?” and you don’t remember, you’re minus well be throwing away your vacation days. If there’s no proof of violation, it doesn’t look good. The ticket or arrest shows that there was a legitimate reason for your action.

Such is the bizarro world of policing

Jaguar said...

Earlier: Hell, I don't even know what I really mean half the time.

Later: All I ask is that you actually read what I write before criticizing me for something I never said.

If you don't know what you really mean half of the time, then one has to wonder why you're getting your panties in a wad over how people read you.

you’re minus well be throwing

The correct phrase is: "You might as well be throwing."

Proofreading is a wonderful thing. It might help you with that "half the time" situation.

PCM said...

"Minus well" may not be the Queen's English, but it is how I talk.

And when I write in non-formal situations, I like to write in the vernacular.

I apologize for the typos. I have many.