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. 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.

  2. 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.




  3. 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.






  4. 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 **==

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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. 


  8. 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.


  9. 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.

  10. 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?