Henry Louis Gates and Bad Policing

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on July 22nd, 2009

By now most have heard of the arrest for disorderly of Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates at his home in Cambridge and the subsequent dropping of charges.  The police report notes that the police officer involved was investigating a call of a possible break-in phoned in by one of Gates’ neighbors who saw Gates and the person who drove him home trying to get into the house by shouldering open a jammed door.  The supposed btmpphpdykgpa1.jpgreak-in was called in around12:44 pm in broad daylight.  The report, the substance of which Gates disputes, suggests that when the officer arrived at the house, Gates initially refused to identify himself.  In addition, Gates supposedly repeatedly yelled at the officer and called him racist.  However, the report also notes that Gates did provide identification, but was arrested when he continued to yell at the officer after the officer left the house.  Even if one believes the police report, which is difficult to do, it is unclear why the police officer was unable to diffuse the situation.  Police officers must deal with incredibly stressful situations quite often and this would seem to be one of the least stressful of those stressful situations, dealing with a 58-year-old man who walks with a cane and had a bronchial infection that he says rendered him unable to yell at anyone and who may or may not have been upset about being investigated for breaking into his own house.  It is difficult to imagine that the following comment occurring some time during the encounter would not have diffused the situation, given that even the report noted that Gates did cooperate enough to provide identification:  “Officer: Sir, I am just investigating a possible break-in of this residence.  I just needed to make sure that you are safe and that your neighbor was mistaken about the possible break-in. Are you sure that no one broke into the house and is hiding inside?  Sorry for the inconvenience.  Here is my name and badge number if you need to follow up.  Please have a nice day.”  Rather than attempt to diffuse the situation, it appears that the officer took umbrage at whatever Dr. Gates said to him or how Dr. Gates said it to him.  Apparently, annoying a police officer in Cambridge appears to be sufficient for some Cambridge police officers to arrest a person.  That may be the way it is, but it does not appear to be good policing.  Whether it is racialized policing is a different more complicated matter.


Comment by Jonathan
2009-07-22 12:37:45

I am pretty sure even if this was a white guy, he would have gotten arrested. This speaks more to the lack of professionalism that police officers have in dealing with the general public and less about the current state of race relations. Cops do whatever they want.

Who watches the watchmen?

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2009-07-22 18:21:57

No doubt this is a case of bad policing. But it’s more than that also. In my view, white people, unless having some experience as police officers or social workers, have a difficult time appreciating the treatment of black males in contemporary American society. The perfunctory reply always seems to blame the black male whether he was victimized or not. Pulitzer Price columnist Eugene Robinson put the point succinctly when he pointed at that few of us know the precise facts involved in this case. But what does commonsense tell us about whether Professor Gates posed a threat that necessitated an arrest. There’s more going on here than meets the eye.

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