The Henry Gates arrest: A different perspective

 I was an auxiliary police officer for 20 years, 11 in Michigan where a wise chief told us never, under any circumstances, were we to arrest someone for disorderly conduct. He said that if we couldn’t find a more serious charge it was up to us to calm the person down. Otherwise he told us that using this charge was just an easy way to end a situation with a disruptive citizen without using the skill we were supposed to have to de-escalate.

I’m not going to try an in depth analysis of Gate’s indignant anger and the possible racial animus coming from the police except to suggest that it is just as likely the police reaction was fueled by classism as racism. It was quite possibly a combination of the two.
Critics of Gates’ behavior may say he was trying to play the "race card" and maybe, at least to some extent, he was.
In Cambridge, a city dominated by two universities, you see the well known town vs. gown phenomenon.  Police, even those with college degrees, resent it when people play the "I’m a university professor" status card. In this case the card was literally a card.
The card that may have riled the police up the most might have been Gates’ Harvard I.D. Maybe things would have turned out differently if he showed them another form of identification.
As I read about the Gates encounter with the police I think they took the easy way out. I was convinced that the sole charge of disturbing the peace charge would be thrown out as it generally is.
Whose peace was disturbed anyway?
Was it half dozen or more police officers who were standing around?
People become police officers in part because they like having their peaceful days doing what can sometimes be a boring job interrupted by some action. They aren’t supposed to arrest someone for disturbing their peace. 
If a person is out of control to the point of endangering the officers, other citizens, or themselves, there are other more serious charges to arrest them on.
Was Gates disturbing the peace of the few neighbors standing around on their lawn?
I doubt it. They were probably entertained. Even if he was, did any of them make a complaint? If they were smart they should have run and gotten their cameras.
As far as I’m concerned the police should have used their skills to de-escalate. This is part of their training.
Instead it became the proverbial "pissing match" between the police and an irate defiant citizen. I’ve seen that first hand many times when issuing traffic tickets.
In those cases the police always win because all they have to do is say "yes sir" or ‘yes mam" and patiently wait until the person has finished venting. Then they ticket them and the person drives away steaming without knowing the original intention was to give them a warning.
What I think happened was that the only way the police could win in this particular pissing match was by finding an excuse to humiliate Gates. This was by taking him away in cuffs using the only charge they had.
They may have done Gates a favor.
They provided him with the experience of being cuffed and locked in a cage in the back of a police car, having his mug shot taken (see police booking report here) and later being locked in a holding area at the police station. Now he doesn’t have to use his  empathy to understand how so many black people feel when their freedom is taken away by police rightly, and especially wrongly, exercising their power.
He’s had the first hand experience.


  1. CheckerboardStrangler

    I can visualize the simplest dialogue exchange that would have defused the whole situation:

    G: “I live here DAMMIT!”

    PD: Show us some ID

    G: “Here’s my damned ID, this is my house and you have no right busting in here and….”

    PD: Hold on sir, you’ve shown us your ID so there’s no more problem and, if you will allow me to say something, I bet you’d be very happy we showed up had it been an actual burglary situation, which is what was reported.
    We ARE just trying to do our jobs, so now let’s forget the whole thing and we’re glad that we found you instead of a burglar.

    Are we all okay now?

  2. CheckerboardStrangler

    And Hal, you’re correct when you say “Disorderly Conduct” is mostly a crutch for cops.

    And in this case it was inexcusable, because a simple dialogue like above, with maybe even a SMILE, would have completely REVERSED EVERYTHING.

    The other inexcusable thing cops frequently do that has ZERO justification?

    Beating a handcuffed suspect. Once they’re in cuffs (or HOG TIED) there is no valid reason to use physical force other than to move them. They can’t get far in cuffs and if there’s a question as to whether they can be controlled while in cuffs, that’s when you call in another officer.

  3. Hal Brown

     Sometimes what you described is called "verbal judo" and there are even two day seminars offered for police in it. For example, this is from one of them (link):


    The principles and tactics taught enable graduates to use "Presence and Words" to calm difficult people who may be under severe emotional or other influences, redirect the behavior of hostile people, diffuse potentially dangerous situations, perform professionally under all conditions and achieve the desired outcome of the encounter.

    (Was the officer accomplished in this?)

    "The Art Of Mediation", delivering words in the form of a personal appeal, to achieve voluntary compliance from people who are under temporary emotional influences, ranging from despair and fear to anger and prejudice.


  4. Hal Brown

     I’m listening to the Cambridge Police Department press conference. 

    If I had one question it would be this:

    Last year how many disorderly conduct arrests were made without additional charges and how many were dismissed?

    If the answer was a very small number I suggest that it tells you something about how Sgt. Crowley handled the case, if it is large it tells you something about the Cambridge Police Dept. as a whole.

    I’m not suggesting racism had anything to do with this. All I am saying is I think he may have taken the quick and easy way out.

     I’d also like to know how the radio call went out after the first dispatch call, and how many police vehicles responded to it. It it was more than one I really want to know why.

    For those who heard the conference, the police union lawyer himself described the charge of disorderly conduct and noted it had a number of elements and that there was a lot of debate about it. 


  5. lorenbliss

    “Disturbing the police” — that’s what, back in the long-ago green-eyeshade days when I was a reporter, the charge against Mr. Gates used to be called in newsrooms (though to my knowledge it never found its way into in print). In any case I think it says all that need be said.

  6. gazelle1929

    Of course, the other shoe just dropped.
    The Hispanic (not white) woman who made the phone call has come forward and told the press that she did NOT say it was two black men who were breaking into the house. She said she could not tell what race they were, but that one was “possibly” Hispanic.

    So the weight swings towards the professor, in my opinion. The cops flat out LIED about the 911 call.

  7. Carl Nemo

    Thanks almandine for the TASER link. Just today on Yahoo they had an article about a breakthrough in this technology; ie., now a device that is multiple firing and shoots three volleys rather than one… /:|

    It seems law enforcement is ecstatic about this breakthough which is likened to the revolver over a single shot muzzle loading rifle.

    No doubt in 50 years or less unless the human race does itself, the cops will have phaser like devices, then they’l have the choice of either stunning or vaporizing citizen/offenders; er I mean the “enemy”…! …courtesy of

    Carl Nemo **==

  8. Hal Brown

     I just happen to be in Washington this week, and was here Thursday when the beer sit down occurred. I was disappointed that this turned into a photo op. There’s a good OpEd in today’s WaPo about Obama’s missed opportunity by Colbert King about this.

    He also writes about the topic of my column:


    Some snippets:  "Supreme Court case that says that talking discourteously to a police officer is not ‘conduct,’ because there is no action in talking, only words.A citizen does not lose her/his First Amendment rights even when trash-talking or worse to a police officer."


    … discourtesy is also no excuse for the police to trespass on the Constitution.

    Cops, when annoyed, have been known to arrest and charge people with "disorderly conduct" even though they know the charge won’t make it to court. The whole idea of such arrests is to shut down, and shut up, the offender. 


    That outcome may be satisfying to the arresting officer, but it offends the Constitution, as it should every citizen, including the president. And Obama, also an officer of the court, should not have shied away from saying so.






  9. Hal Brown

     Some pundits and  right wing bloggers are making a lot out of this White House photo:

    Obama Gates Crowley beer White House photo

    For example, The American Thinker writes "And it doesn’t take a genius to see which of the two younger men showed real consideration and manners to the older man. "

    What everyone writing this seems to miss is that the purpose of the meeting was to help foster a reconciliation between Gates and Crowley. Obama was right to let them walk together and not butt in to this moment which had the potential to allow the two men to relate on a very human level.




  10. almandine

    “Obama was right to let them walk together and not butt in to this moment which had the potential to allow the two men to relate on a very human level.”

    That was the farthest thing from his mind.

  11. bogofree

    At one AM in the morning I’d be glad the police were active. As a home owner I’d be quite happy that my neighbors called in and the police responded. How the situation was handled is another story and one that will never be resolved since the reports contridict each other. Both parties were probably agitated but one has a gun and cuffs. Best for police to issue an apology and move on.

    I actually have been in similar situations many, many times. As a trail runner I will often park my car on the side of the road in remote areas and that will attract attention. Countless times I’ve returned to find myself boxed in and I just show ID, registration and act polite and cooperative. Never had a problem. But, then again, I’m not Black.

  12. Hal Brown

    We may never know whether the police who dealt with Gates escalated the encounter into a confrontation or if they made a valiant and professional attempt to calm him down as they are trained to do with irate citizens.

    In most instances an arrest for disorderly conduct means that the police didn’t have a more serious charge to arrest the person on (or to take them into custody for their own protection).  Such arrests are rarely necessary.

    I mean, he was hardly inciting a riot or causing children to run and hide.

    Such an arrest to me raises a red flag that the officer lacks skill in defusing volatile people.

    Gates may need a course in anger management. The cop or cops may need a refresher course in de-escalating.

  13. almandine

    The problem it seems to me is that after he showed them his IDs – inside the house, no less – they convinced him to go back outside, after which they arrested him. Escalation, not de-escalation, was their modus.

    Reminds one of all the taser incidents at play in this country… apparently fueled in many cases by the [lack of good] psychological health of the officers involved. I shiver at the thought of these types in action should martial law ever be instigated by higher authorities.

  14. oceanika

    I think you are exactly right. After he showed them his ID why didn’t they just do a quick verification and leave? Obviously convincing him to go back outside was evidence they didn’t want to let it go.

    My good friend from college joined the local police reserve and eventually joined them officially after graduation. I only saw him occasionally after that and each time I could percieve a change; we all called it “turning into a cop”.

    As he explained it. “you never know if the guy you pull over in a traffic stop is running from a bank robbery or something.” He started to mistrust the public and sometimes his freinds. He was a good guy but “the job” affected him.

    Others with the “us vs them” mentality, a gun and an enflated sense of self-importance, may actually seek confrontation. It sounds like this was such a case.

  15. AustinRanter

    I don’t think we’ll ever see a balance in accepted behaviors by law enforcement where the public at large doesn’t voice complaints, and in particular, regarding street cops.

    To me, a street cop is in a damned if they do and damned if they don’t situation.

    Some good cops do become bad cops. Some really bad cops become criminals. But I don’t really see that as the problem.

    A lot of cops have zero training in human behavior outside of a police academy.

    A lot of cops don’t have exposure to the types of higher education that might serve them as a cop.

    Seems like cops would eventually burn out from stress or become so desensitized to their work evironments that they tune out and turn off any human emotion. And, Im not so sure emotion is always a good attribute in certain situations in a cop’s life. Probably they begin to stop internalizing experiences that would shock or scare the hell out of the average person.

    It’s a tough job that most dont have the emotional makeup or visceral fortitude for.

  16. Nogood

    Over the years of trucking and encountering being stopped for traffic violations or for a DOT inspection, I can honest say that 95% of the officers that I have dealt with have been very professional. And in return I have always shown the utmost respect towards the officer. I always remember that the first impression is always the best and the one that will always be remembered. Now, once in a great while, I have run up against some egomaniac and basically all a person can do is “roll with the punches”.

    I suspect that Mr. Gates probably could have avoided this whole situation if he had reacted in a manner which did not “pour gas on the flame”, although the police was entirely wrong in their approach and they will probably wind up on the wrong end of a lawsuit, I am hoping.

  17. almandine

    I agree. It’s a shame that lawsuits are necessary to keep ’em honest. Then again, that’s the system.

  18. Hal Brown

     It was 1:00 in the afternoon, full daylight, driver and limo from airport in front, probably cars and neighbors out and about. Hardly the typical B&E situation.

  19. j vaughan

    Gosh, why can’t you guys get it. The police broke into a man’s house at 1:00 in the morning. Forget that he had just returned from China – a 20 hour flight and his door was jammed. He was in his own house legally. LEGALLY! The police were more interested in protecting the property than the life of the man who LEGALLY lived there. You should be outraged at there behavior. Forget he was BLACK. He gave credible evidence – two ID’s – that he was the owner of the house but the Police man was more interested in the man’s indigence than the fact that they were wrong. THE POLICE WERE WRONG. Does any body dispute that Lois Gates lived in his home? Do the police? NO! I’m a 55 year old white man from Texas. My politics are not liberal. Fess up Sargent. You messed up, period.

  20. Cris

    Obama knew he couldn’t propose a vast overhaul of the health care system which would relegate private companies to the insurers of the well-to-do. The right wing would have had a field day screaming about how he was destroying America and comparing him to everyone from Stalin to Voldemort.

    I’m not as sure as some people are that he is viewing the current developments as a defeat, and I am quite certain the negative reaction doesn’t surprise him.

    Oyun oyna

  21. Carl Nemo

    Those…”who put their lives on the line day in and day out,” extract from many web based pro enforcement rebuttals concerning our nationwide sacrosanct police forces.

    I, along with many other citizens get tired of this boohoo apologia as to why police officers nationwide act like jack-booted thugs when confronted by irate, rightfully upset citizens especially when it comes to people with dark skin. I’m white.

    In most jurisdictions, modern day police officers have superb educational credentials especially in psychology etc.

    So one would think when a citizen questions them concerning their name and badge number they wouldn’t get all up tight and eager to either arrest or do worse to said John Q. Citizen; ie. break out the TASERS and move more often than not make an arrest…!

    Now, I’m not talking about an operation that’s a function of a long term investigation that’s going to come down to busting a known crack house with intense force along with summary, but announced penetration to prevent the perps from destroying evidence or escaping, but a bust like this one that sounds more like a Mayberry, “front porch” experience.

    Police officers in most jurisdictions are well paid for what they do and also are able to retire quite early in life compared to the average citizen who is paying the tax freight for such protection. They are getting paid to risk their lives, otherwise they shouldn’t be in that line of work…period! They want it all though; ie., a perfectly safe career with draconian, summary control of the citizenry with minimum risk to themselves so they can all retire within 20 years of less if on disability and live the good life with a pension that even has COLA (cost of living allowances)…!? Retire today with 5 g’s per month and in ten years it will be 7g’s or better for them. I know so. In some areas of the country police captains retire with 120 to 150 percent of their active police duty pay…!?!?

    Enforcement nationwide has been almost deified to the point that it’s nauseating when in reality these guys and gals are out of control and have been morphed into a nationwide force of quasi-militaristic c/ops that would make the SS and Gestapo of the Nazi era green with envy.

    The enforcement team that interfaced with Dr. Gates represent a cross-section of my aforedescribed nationwide blight of “police gone wild” that are totally and absolutely out of control relative to the local and national citizenry.

    Carl Nemo **==

  22. Paolo

    Well said, Carl!

    I have spent a lot of time of late looking at police videos in which officers completely lose it. This is not a rare or unusual event.

    I’ve seen 14 year old kids pinned to the ground and handcuffed for the crime of–skateboarding!

    I’ve seen a heroic police officer beat a handcuffed, hundred-pound woman until she lay unconscious in a pool of her own blood.

    Police officers these days often have a warped view of their own importance. Usually, anything beyond complete submission to them brings a charge of “resisting arrest” or “interfering with a law enforcement officer.”

    I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of the videos also, so I won’t bother posting links. It’s such a common occurrence, you can literally spend all day watching examples of police misconduct.

    I’m not even sure racism had any play in this particular case of Dr. Gates. More important by far, I feel, is the epidemic of police over-reaction.

  23. almandine

    Good link.

    The problem with tasers is that they’re Non-lethal, or so the rationale goes. It gives those who wield them the air of added authority without the apparent need for responsibility. “I didn’t shoot him, ya know?”

    NO, but you assaulted the hell out of him.

  24. John Farley

    The cop refused to give his name or badge number, as Gates requested. The cop broke the rules and should be fired immediately.

  25. fluffy666

    My partner is a lawyer who worked with the police in the Northern Territory (Australia).
    She has told me that the policemen there had a thing called the “attitude test”.
    If you failed this test,by not showing enough fear and/or respect, then you would be dealt with in such a manner as to ensure that in your next encounter you would respond as they wished.
    Sounds like the Professor failed the test because he didn’t understand that , on the one hand, he is just a black male homeowner trying to stand up for what he imagines are his rights,whilst on the other there is white male with a gun , a uniform and others of his tribe to back him up.
    When I was a soldier I came across heaps of other N.C.O.s that just loved the powertrip that the chevrons enabled, and I have to admit that I despised them for it, so it’s hard for me to side with the police on this occasion.
    And if this bloke thinks that he can get away with this joke, how many more people has he tested, failed, and persecuted.
    And how much resentment has he built up in the community?

  26. Carl Nemo

    Thanks Paolo for the positive feedback. I’ll post a link that should cause our readers some concern, allowing them to get modern law enforcement in proper perspective.

    I’m not anti law enforcement. Obviously we need well grounded, mentally balanced officers to protect the social order, but things have gotten out of hand, mainly because the Federal government is behind a slow, but sure process of militarizing our police forces nationwide. Even the smallest podunk communities have SWAT teams that have all the latest military level gear to crush the populace.

    A few years back an 80 year old woman in Portland, Oregon was being held hostage in her home by a black male who had broken in with the intent of theft. It’s a predominantly black neighborhood.

    In short order they had SWAT with even an “armored” personnel carrier in the neighborhood to confront the hostage taker. It was mind boggling to see the force they were exerting against one lone gunman.

    In the end they ended up killing the hostage; ie., an innocent 80 plus year old black woman and “wounded” the felon. Huh?!

    I still think of how the wild and woolly American West was policed by simply town sheriffs, U.S. Marshals, Texas Rangers etc. and they managed to take care of the business of taming towns and bringing territories under the rule of law along with the support of deputized citizens. Now America is loaded to the gunnels with a bunch of whining, grossly fat, overpaid, “sissy cops” who want us to bow and scrape to them simply because they’ve embraced such as an occupation. Again, we can thank our U.S. government for slowly but surely morphing these enforcement personnel with a badge and a gun/TASER into a “Judge Dredd” (movie starring Stallone) enforcement persona.

    Carl Nemo **==

  27. sherry

    Deaths have been attributed to tasing. Usually, it’s not just one hit, but over use of the taser. Sometimes police are over zealous.