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Systemic Not Stupid

Cops Gone Wild

by DAVE LINDORFF

Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley has gone whining to his professional organization, the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Assn., asking for support in calling for President Obama to apologize for saying he acted "stupidly" in arresting Harvard Prof. Henry Gates after first suspecting the prominent African-American scholar of being a burglar caught breaking into Gates’ own home.

Sgt. Crowley claims he was totally justified in making the arrest on a charge of "disorderly conduct" (later dropped by the police), because Gates, who actually had been forced to break into his own home during a return from a speaking tour in China when the front door was stuck, had allegedly become "enraged" when the officer confronted him and asked for identification. Crowley claims that Gates called him names, called him a racist, and threatened to file a complaint against him, and that as a result he arrested him.

President Obama said that this arrest, made after Gates had shown the officer both his Harvard faculty ID and also his drivers license, showing that he in fact lived in the residence in question, was stupid, but in truth it was much worse than that. It was a blatant abuse of power–one that has become all to common, and accepted, in today’s America, where every cop’s a "hero."

Sgt. Crowley, a large man with the power of arrest, armed with a gun and the authority to use it, was never physically threatened by the 5’8" Gates, a 58-year old man who walks with the aid of a cane. He simply didn’t like being called names and yelled at by an irate citizen, and so he slapped on the cuffs and dragged the offending perp downtown for booking.

Crowley’s cop backers, and the predictable right-wing punditry, claim that he is owed an apology by President Obama, because the president directed his criticism "at the wrong person." They say it was Gates who behaved "stupidly."

That is to say, in their view if a police officer comes into your house and accuses you of being a burglar, you are "stupid" if you protest–especially if you are a black man and you suspect that the officer in question made his assumption because you are black. In the view of these "superior" officers, and of Sgt. Crowley, the appropriate behavior for a citizen confronted by a police officer is abject submissiveness, a Buddha-like calmness, and, of course, deferential politeness.

Now I suppose it might be the better idea, if you don’t want any trouble, to say "Sir" to a cop who stops you or who asks for ID, but what the hell kind of country is that? Where does it say that if you feel wronged by the police you have no right to tell them what you think?

Things have gone seriously wrong when police feel justified in slapping cuffs on people who stand up for themselves and speak their minds.

I would agree that President Obama was wrong to say Sgt. Crowley had been stupid to arrest Gates. He should have said Sgt. Crowley had abused his power.

I know police have a tough and dangerous job. I have twice in my life called police when I thought there was an intruder in my house (once it was true), and I’m glad they are quick to show up when called. But American police are not Roman centurions, whatever they may think. They are public servants–and indeed, because of their awesome power of arrest and their deadly sidearms, they are servants with a special duty to use their power responsibly and in the most measured of ways.

In response to my article yesterday on this site, I received a lot of mail, most of it supportive, and much of it consisting of accounts by people, black and white, of occasions when they had been threatened or abused by out-of-control police. But one woman’s letter stands out. The wife of a veteran police officer who died in 1984 in the line of duty, she offered the following:

"My first husband was a police officer for 9 years. He never arrested people in such a situation. He would have asked for I.D.,then told the professor that he was simply answering a call. And furthermore,he would have offered to help the professor and his driver, and/or suggested a locksmith. My husband was very polite, college-educated and tried to simply diffuse every situation instead of escalating it. He said any police officer who makes a lot of arrests for disorderly conduct and/or resisting arrest needs to be retrained. He said it’s a red flag for a problem officer.

"In his 9 years on the P.D.(killed in the line of duty unfortuantely), he made record number of arrests and never had a complaint, because he was respectful and fair in dealing with the public.

"He (Crowley) totally mishandled this call."

For another perspective, consider this note from Aleksandar Kostich, an attorney in the felony unit of the Albuquerque, NM public defender’s office. Kostich writes:

"I believe that in the misdemeanor division they get a lot of that type of thing. What I see in my own practice with regularity is the cops using (public disorder charges) to detain, search, etc.–basically what is referred to as a pretextual stop or detain. The Albuquerque Police are notorious for this, and for doing it more often to African American folks."

He adds, "The problem is really systemic in my opinion."

Sure Prof. Gates could have avoided the whole thing if he’d played nice, thanked the officer for suspecting him and demanding his ID, and sent him on his way with a friendly wave. But if the professor felt he was being racially profiled, and was pissed about it, then right or wrong, why should he have to shut up and take what he perceived as biased treatment from a cop? He had surrendered his documents. That was his only obligation (and even there, he could have, if he’d wanted, demanded that the officer return with a warrant first).

President Obama should not apologize to Crowley. Nor should Prof. Gates. Crowley, if he is as good as he says he is, and as sensitive to racial issues as he claims he is, should apologize to Gates, both for suspecting him, and for the wrongful arrest. If he does that, I suspect Gates will apologize too, for calling Crowley a racist.

The bottom line here is that a man was arrested in his home after falsely being suspected of being a burglar by a policeman who made the arrest soley out of pique at being disrespected by the man he was wrongly suspecting.

If we still live in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, it seems clear to me who should be apologizing in this case.

DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at dlindorff@mindspring.com