Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gates and Crowley: Police Misconduct Irrespective of Any Racial Issues

The debate over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has fallen along typical ideological lines. The liberals rush to the defense of Prof. Gates, and accuse the police of racial profiling. The conservatives rush to the defense of the police force, deriding anyone who talks of race as being “the real racists” (cf. Yasser Arafat calling Golda Meir “the real antisemite”). The problem with this simplistic analysis of the situation is that it conflates two issues that are not necessarily dependent on each other:
1) Were the actions of the police racially motivated?
2) Were the actions of the police justified?

In fact, Prof. Gates did himself a disservice by immediately claiming to be the victim of racial profiling. In doing so, he put people in the position where if they disagree with his assessment, they feel obligated to defend the actions of the police, and anyone who criticizes their actions is assumed to be agreeing with him that the case was racially motivated. This is evidenced by the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association’s statement that they resented President Obama’s implication that race was a factor in the arrest. In fact, President Obama said no such thing. He carefully chose his words to say the police acted “stupidly” and did not accuse them of racism. However, because of the way Prof. Gates had already framed the case, people assume that a criticism of the police’s actions are a tacit way of implying racism.

There is little evidence to suggest that officer Crowley was racially motivated. He was doing his job in responding to a call, and seems to have an excellent track record on race relations. None of this means, though, that he was justified in arresting Prof. Gates. While nothing in this incident would indicate that Prof. Gates is a racist, or “reverse racist” as some conservatives have suggested, he does seem to be a bit paranoid. However, given the history of relations between police and minorities in America, one cannot entirely blame him for that paranoia. Furthermore, let us try to put ourselves in his shoes. He just got back from a trip to China. He’s tired. He’s jetlagged. He’s frustrated because he had trouble getting his door open. And no sooner does he get it open than the police show up accusing him of breaking in. There is no doubt he overreacted, but very few of us would not have been irritable under those circumstances. Officer Crowley should have been more sensitive to this. He should have just apologized for the misunderstanding and walked away. To arrest him was indeed, as President Obama said, acting “stupidly.”

However, “acting stupidly” does not go far enough in describing officer Crowley’s actions. One can easily argue that Prof. Gates acted stupidly as well, but their actions are not at all comparable. Prof. Gates may have been rude and unfair in how he spoke to the officer, but he broke no law. A person has freedom of speech in this country and a person may be as disorderly as he wants in his own home. He posed no threat to anyone and was not creating any kind of public nuisance. Instead of acting professionally, officer Crowley let Prof. Gates’ comments anger him personally, and then used his power to arrest to settle a personal grudge instead of to enforce the law. That’s not just stupid. That’s abuse of power. That’s illegal, and for that he deserves to be disciplined, and perhaps sued for false arrest. A person who would use his police powers for such extralegal purposes is not someone I would ever want carrying a gun. So let’s be clear about things: while both Prof. Gates and officer Crowley may have acted stupidly, only one broke the law, and that was officer Crowley.

Even though the actions of the Cambridge police department in this particular incident were probably not racially motivated, there are lessons it can teach about race relations for police departments all over the country. The wounds inflicted by the police on minority communities through years of discrimination and racial profiling are still not healed. Those departments that are still profiling obviously need to stop immediately, but even for those that aren’t, their responsibilities are not done. It is not enough to simply treat members of the minority community the same way they treat members of the white community. They must treat minorities with extra sensitivity. They must recognize that history gives the minorities every reason to be suspicious of the police. The onus of responsibility is on the police force to make an extra effort to undo the damage and mistrust they wrought. Only then will we be able to truly put our disgraceful past behind us and have a police force that can effectively protect all of the residents of this great land.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


It turns out I don't get so worked up about things when it's not an election year, which means I'm obviously writing a lot less often. Of course, pressing issues worth commenting on do still come up from time to time. I can usually express my views in short sound bites, which I will first try to send as a letter to my local newspaper. When they don't print it, I will proceed to publish it here. So here are two letters I wrote recently:

On Judge Sotomayor and the Ricci case:

Legal precedent prior to Ricci v. Stephano was clear that in cases where an employment qualification showed disparate racial impact, the side arguing that it should be used anyway had the burden of proof to show it was fair. The New Haven firefighters certainly did not meet this standard. In its decision, the majority of the Supreme Court essentially chose to reverse this precedent, and put the burden of proof on the other side to show the measure was not fair. We can obviously argue over which is a more equitable standard, but there is no question that Judge Sotomayor was following established legal precedent when she issued her ruling. I find it interesting that conservatives are now arguing that she should have ruled based on her personal sense of fairness rather than on the legal precedent. Isn’t that what they used to call “judicial activism”?

And on healthcare:

I find it ironic that the Republicans are trying to raise the scepter of financial responsibility in their criticisms of the Democrats’ health care proposals. They clearly didn’t care about deficits during the eight years they were bestowing lavish government handouts on the very rich. But now that the government might do something helpful for people who actually need it, this we can’t afford?