Mr. President, a Harvard PhD, and a Sgt.: My Comments on the Gates Case

Now that President Obama, Harvard University’s Dr. Louis Gates Jr., and Cambridge Police Sergeant Jim Crowley have all agreed to discuss their differences over adult beverages, I’ll leave the racial aspects of the incident for other news sites and blogs to cover.

I did find three articles/blogs that provided insight into the Harvard professor’s recent police encounter:

1) The police officer who blogs at Pepper Spray Me (a writer who I find myself regularly disagreeing with) provides a fair assessment of the matter.

2) Dr. Boyce Watkins of Syracuse University offers several keen insights.

3) Finally, the criminology professors over at the General Blog of Crime discuss the incident from several perspectives. In their comments, regular contributor “Dr. Cranky” is absolutely correct when he states that in studies of officer discretion and arrests the most common determining factor regarding arresting someone is not race, sex, age, or income—-it is a suspect’s demeanor (bad attitude commonly leads to arrest).

One relevant aspect of the Gates case that has not been the focus of much debate involves what this sociology professor accuses the sergeant of doing:

...I am struck by the police report, given that it details a ridiculous action on the part of the officer and an example of discretion gone wrong. If accurate, the officer induced Gates to follow him outside (by declining to give his name and badge number until Gates was outside with him) after he had established Gates’ identity and that no crime was afoot and then came the disorderly conduct charge…
The blogger refers to this approach being described in a recent book by Dr. Peter Moskos entitled Cop in the Hood (the book details the life of a sociologist who spent a year as an officer with the Baltimore PD around 2002).

Moskos talks of how officers used this tactic in a domestic situation to make an arrest outside a home—-when no arrest was previously possible due to everyone being in the house.

Now, I am not going to say that the old “hey, let us go outside and talk about this—whamo arrest on the lawn” approach was never or is not used by some police across the country.

I will say that this type of strategy was not common where I worked, is certainly not frequently employed nationally, and I do not know anyone personally who has tried the approach. I believe it is most likely to be used in a domestic call (as the Moskos example describes) where the officer’s liability and pressure from supervisors to separate the parties can be immense.

More importantly, I say the “coax a person outside to arrest them” will work, well, ONCE—-that is until the district attorney’s office finds about it, dismisses the charges, lights a fire under the officer’s supervisor, and then verbally kicks the arresting officer in the posterior.

It is important to remember that police are one component of the criminal justice system and his/her reputation is everything. If an officer is linked to bringing lousy cases like this one to prosecutors, he/she will spend free time in civil court and/or federal court and quickly be an outcast at the courthouse-—a label that no sworn with career aspirations wants to be tagged with.

The question of expanding officer discretion in using disorderly conduct charges to make an arrest in this situation is an interesting debate. If the sociologists want to convince me that officers use this tactic regularly, they better have good data-—because I am not believing it until then.

In my opinion, considering the type of call (not a domestic) and the liability for false arrest in this instance, I have difficulty believing that Crowley (a supervisor) tricked Gates into stepping outside simply to arrest him; thereby changing both of their lives forever.

In closing, one of the more troubling aspects of the incident is that Lucia Whalen, the citizen who took the initiative to call 911, needs an attorney to deflect all of criticism that she has received. I doubt that she will be contacting authorities again about suspicious behavior anytime soon.

Her experience does not bode well for community and police partnerships in combatting crime, does it?


J. J. in Phila said...

1. I'm glad you weighed in on this.

2. I wouldn't call this "racial profiling." When I stupidly set of my alarm, the responding officer, who happened to be African American, asked me, who doesn't happen to be African American, for my ID. I don't think either that officer or Sergeant Crowley where "profiling" on a racial basis.

3. Did Professor Gates actions constitute a need for the filing of charges? I cannot imagine someone being that disruptive so quickly, but I guess it is possible.

4. When Crowley asked Gates to step outside, is it possible that he was concerned about Gates' safety? The could have been someone standing behind Gates with a knife or a gun, saying, "Get rid of the cops."

Gates is a public figure (and I'm a fan of him) and I would be a bit worried that maybe he was being targeted by someone other than the police.

torn blazer said...

I agree with you, you have summed this up well

Erin said...

I think Dr. Gates certainly wasn't considering the ramifications for the caller and for police/community cooperation when he acted the way he did. And that's what irks me the most about this incident.

angelcel said...

The article by Dr.Boyce Watkins says it all. Ironically I feel *he* can comment with absolute candour where I would have to be very careful with my words...for fear of be accused of racial slurs. We live in strange and interesting times.

truthinpr said...

Very thoughtful insights here. I also found it intriguing, and somewhat disconcerting, that the citizen who called police now is dealing with fall-out from misinterpretations, assumptions and glossing-over of facts that have emerged. Just like us all, I have found journalists (myself having been one for 20 plus years) often are sloppy in their boiling down of events and that it becomes like the "telephone game" in which the final story bears little resemblance to the initial story.

J. J. in Phila said...


Professor Gates did state that he thought the person who reported it was correct in doing so. He said:

Interviewer: TR: What do you make of the suspicious neighbor who called the police with an erroneous report of “two black men” trying to enter your apartment? Was this neighborhood watch gone wrong?

Gates: I don’t know this person, and I’m sure that she thought she was doing the right thing. If I was on Martha’s Vineyard like I am now and someone was trying to break into my house, I would hope that someone called the police and that they would respond.,3

Christopher said...

I guess I don't get it, Slamdunk... the "tricking" someone to get outside. I mean, I understand that for the disorderly conduct statute it had to be in public... but in domestics or other calls? We'll arrest anyone, anywhere. I've never heard of trying to lure someone outside to arrest them, except maybe a warrant where you don't have authority to enter the home, in which case luring them outside is perfectly legal. I must be missing something.

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for the insightful comments JJ, Truth, and all.

Christopher: I should have been more specific and provided an example as well as said that it varies by state.

This approach was first described to me in a regard to a domestic call. The officers arrive and find both parties heavily intoxicated, no violence has occurred, none of the residents want to prosecute for anything, and no one wants to leave.

Officers are concerned that once they leave--something will happen that will result in another call for service at the location and hence might consider the get the drunk outside for an arrest (since their is seemingly no arrestable offense prior to the trick).

Moskos' specific example is this:

"A nonviolent domestic dispute serves as another example of using the law to gain extralegal authority. A woman calls police because she is sick of her baby’s father coming home and being rowdy after a night of drinking.

An officer wants the drunken man to spend the night elsewhere. The girlfriend is not afraid of the man. Though the officer believes this argument will continue and perhaps turn violent, there is no cause for arrest.

Police may not order a person from his or her home. But an officer can request to talk to the man outside his house.

At this point the officer might say, “If you don’t take a walk, I’m going to lock you up.’ The man, though within his rights to quietly reenter his house and say goodnight to the police, is more likely to obey the officer’s request or engage the police in a loud and drunken late-night debate.

The man may protest loudly that the officer has no reason to lock him up. If a crowd gathers or lights in neighboring buildings turn on, he may be arrested for disorderly conduct."

Christopher said...

Ah, I understand your example now, though I've never seen it in practice. For us, a police officer cannot be a victim of disorderly conduct, which means you must have a complaining witness. Also, there is no public intoxication law. So getting him outside has no benefit. Even in Prof. Gate's case, we couldn't have made that arrest unless a citizen was willing to sign complaints.

Steve said...

I came over to your blog after you commented on mine. I appreciated your insight into how the police work, as I am ignorant to that structure.