A routine police matter in Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard University, needlessly spiraled into national news because the police officer and the resident involved ratcheted up the situation. President Barack Obama, a Harvard alum and friend on the Cambridge resident involved, then erred by unnecessarily weighing in on the matter on national television.
The situation started when a caller informed Cambridge police that she saw a suspicious person or persons apparently forcing their way through a front door of a home. Sgt. James Crowley was dispatched to the location to investigate. Crowley, from the front porch, saw a man inside and asked him to step outside and identify himself. At this point, Crowley had done absolutely nothing wrong. He needed to get the subject outside and seek identification for a number of reasons. Crowley had to ensure this was not a homeowner under duress or in a hostage situation. He also had to make sure this was not a burglar attempting to pass himself off as the lawful resident of the home.
But in fact, the man was Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who apparently took offense to Crowley’s presence. Gates reportedly began accusing the officer of racism and initially refused Crowley’s request for identification and cooperation. This was the first of several missteps by the people involved in the situation. Gates, as an educated man, needs to realize Crowley was only there to protect his home and personal well-being. Instead, Gates initiated an exchange that devolved into an ugly shouting match that ended with him being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
But Crowley also erred by simply not explaining to Gates that he was only there to protect him. Even with shouting and derogatory comments, handcuffing and arresting the Harvard professor probably was not necessary. This is borne out by the fact that Cambridge police dropped the charges the next day. If the charges had any real veracity, they would not have been dropped so readily.
Then possibly the most egregious error came from Obama, who was nowhere near the scene, but who knows Gates personally. Addressing the nation on his proposed health care reform, Obama took the time to chime in on the Cambridge incident. Obama first admitted he did not know all of the facts of the case, then proceeded to say the Cambridge police acted “stupidly,” and injected racism into the case while exposing a minor situation to a national audience. The leader of the free world should know better than to speak without having all of the facts, especially if he was going to invoke racism accusations.
Three missteps by three different people turned a routine situation – one that plays out hundreds or thousands of times daily across America – into a national debate on racism and racial profiling, neither of which played any role in the matter. Common sense and cooler heads could have avoided the whole mess. But one thing is certain, all three men were wrong in at least some of their actions on that day.