Commentary Magazine


The President vs. the Police Officer

“I have to say I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement,” President Obama said in an interview with ABC News Thursday night, “because I think it was a pretty straightforward comment that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home.”

Surprised, are we? Let’s see: the president of the United States decides to insert himself into the middle of a racially charged conflict between an arresting police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, and one of the most prominent African-American scholars in America, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard. Gates accuses the officer of racism, a charge Sgt. Crowley adamantly denies, apparently with the backing of other officers on the scene. According to Obama — who admits he wasn’t on the scene, doesn’t have all the facts, and only has “suspicions” about what went on — the Cambridge police acted “stupidly.” Why on earth should Obama’s comments be viewed as “controversial”?

Earth to Obama: Get Real.

Here are the facts as we know them. Sgt. Crowley — who according to reports is an outstanding officer, something of a role model, and a police-academy expert on racial profiling — responded to Gates’s home near Harvard University last week to investigate a report of a burglary and demanded Gates show him identification. (According to media reports, the incident began when a woman caller reported that a man was trying to force his way into a home. Gates said he was unable to enter his damaged front door after returning from a week in China. Crowley arrived on the scene to investigate.) Police say Gates at first refused and then accused the officer of racism.

Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, with police accusing him of being uncooperative, refusing to initially provide identification, and “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior” by repeatedly shouting at a policeman in front of people gathered on the street in front of his house. (The charges were later dropped.)

“I acted appropriately,” Crowley told WBZ Radio Thursday. “Mr. Gates was given plenty of opportunities to stop what he was doing. He didn’t. He acted very irrational; he controlled the outcome of that event. There was a lot of yelling, there was references to my mother, something you wouldn’t expect from anybody that should be grateful that you were there investigating a report of a crime in progress, let alone a Harvard University professor.”

According to the police report, Crowley asked Gates to talk outside, to which he responded, “Yeah, I’ll speak with your mama outside.”

According to the Boston Globe,

People who know Crowley were skeptical or outright dismissive of allegations of racism. A prominent defense lawyer, a neighbor of Crowley’s, his union, and fellow officers described him yesterday as a respected, and respectful, officer who performs his job well and has led his colleagues in diversity training.

“He’s evenhanded and, in the cases I’ve had with him, he’s been very much in control and very professional,” said Joseph W. Monahan III, a criminal defense lawyer in Cambridge and former Middlesex County prosecutor. Monahan has represented several defendants arrested by Crowley for domestic assaults and for drunken driving.

From another report:

“Based on what I have seen and heard from the other officers, [Crowley] maintained a professional decorum during the course of the entire situation and conducted himself in a professional manner,” Cambridge Police Department Commissioner Robert Haas told a news conference. Obama’s comment also stunned the city’s policemen, Haas added. “They were very much deflated.”

Being maligned by the president of the United States will do that to a police department.

Why Obama would wade into these waters is hard to fathom. He says he is “a little biased” because of his friendship with Gates. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether knowing Gates personally makes Obama’s statement more or less understandable. But for Obama to insert himself into such an explosive story, in the manner he did, is irresponsible and borders on recklessness.

Despite the denials of his hapless press spokesman Robert Gibbs, Obama clearly was accusing the Cambridge police of “stupidity” — and he was implicitly blessing the charges of racism made by Professor Gates. Why the rush to judgment? Why not wait to comment on the story until more of the facts are known? And why the reflexive attack on the police officer, despite Sgt. Crowley’s reputation and his account of what happened?

One might assume that President Obama has enough on his plate to keep him busy without donning his cap as Commentator-in-Chief. If that is his goal, then Obama should have applied for a job as a host on MSNBC, rather than run for president.

It is astonishing that Obama and his fellow Democrats are apparently eager to recreate the 1970’s, when they assailed our intelligence agencies then as now and when the Democratic Party was the political home of those who thought it was jolly good fun to undermine institutions of social authority like, say, the police. “The primary problem of American society continues to be that of the eroding authority of the principal institutions of government and society,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum to President Nixon on November 13, 1970 (Moynihan, a sagacious man and a Democrat, wrote about how the main attack on our society was coming from the Left, causing people to shift political and philosophical allegiances). You would think all these years later that Obama and Democrats would be foursquare on the side of strengthening rather than upbraiding those institutions. But you would be wrong.

The Crowley-Gates controversy is one that can become magnified and seen as representative of a particular cast of mind. Barack Obama was elected in part because many people believed he would heal social divisions rather than deepen them. But that hope, like others, might prove to have been misplaced.

What President Obama did at his press conference on Wednesday was not only wrong; he acted stupidly. And he will, I suspect, pay a price for it.

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