UPDATED (based on feedback from commenters, new information, and some other data)
Is racial bias ever a factor in police work? Was racial bias a factor in GatesGate, the recent incident in Cambridge Massachusetts involving Harvard scholar Skip Gates and the Cambridge Police? Here, I want to relate an incident in which I was involved in which a very strong racial bias clearly occurred, in which the police tried to arrest a black man principally because he was black even though he was totally innocent, and at the same time, gave undue sway to a white man. First a little context, then the parable.
As the facts emerge it becomes clear that Skip Gates was unlawfully arrested by the Cambridge Police, and that while this may not have exactly been a hate crime, there is a reasonably good chance that racial bias was involved. I have a feeling that Skip Gates himself would be the first to point out that this is not the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone, there are much worse cases where racia bias ultimately victimizes a person of color. I assure you that on the same evening dozens, nay, hundreds, of equally black men very much in their own homes were also busted by racist white police officers at various locations across this country, and they didn’t do anything either.
Why was the arrest unlawful? Well, technically, it was not, but he was arrested under a widely used type of statute that is designed to keep the peace but is in fact used by the police to directly punish people who give them lip.
Clearly, race is a factor in this case, which is in part why we are talking about it here. The very validity of the concept of race itself can and should be questioned, and despite modest efforts of educating the public (like this exhibit), a questionable social model of biological race persists in Western society. (See this and this.) Racism is at the root of well known horrific historical events and singular murderous acts. Racial bias affects people’s jobs, people’s health, and increased a person’s chance of being in prison if their skin is not white. Racialized thinking and racism can be very bad for the health of those with subaltern status (usually that means “non white”). Racialized thinking and racial bias can lead to unabashedly bald faced blaming, to absurd fear-based bias amongst members of the same, upper class, to outrageous acts of senseless violence, and to deeply insulting political decisions. Despite a lack of research, there is evidence that race plays a role in policing from the police (staffing) end of things. Driving while black, shopping while black, and apparently being in your house while black, are representitive outcomes of a racialized society. Racial profile and policing can go hand in hand.
This will all get sorted out and there are already strong indications from Cambridge that the ultimate outcome of Gatesgate will be a positive and forward moving learning experience for all. So, while that is happening, let me tell you my story about black and white and the Cambridge Police.
So, here’s the story. I knew someone who lived in an apartment building on Irving Street south of Kirkland. This was an apartment that I had formerly lived in, and which is about 400 feet from where Skip Gates lives. At the time, I lived in a dorm with Barack Obama. Well, OK, not really, but I did live in the law school dorm and Barack Obama was in law school at the time, so it may well have been him leaving the moldy sour cream in the refrigerator all the time. Who knows?
Anyway, one day the person I knew on Irving street called me. It was after dark, and as usual, I was in the lab (where I spent most of my time when I was not in the field in those days) which was not very far from this particular address on Irving Street.
“Somebody is breaking into my apartment. They tried getting into the back door but that dead bolt you put on there last year held.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Yes, and I also called the neighbors upstairs. The guy got into her apartment, but saw her and got scared off. He was carrying a VCR machine or something.”
“OK, well, keep the door locked. I’ll come over … I bet I beat the police there!”
And I did. I jogged the three blocks and rang her up on the intercom.
“I just heard him again trying to force a door. You better get out of there because if he comes out the door ….”
“… if he comes out the door, his ass is mine!”
“No, wait, that’s danger….” click. Delusions of grandeur swept over me as I flicked off the intercom and walked outside onto the street. To take care of this.
There were effectively two ways out of this building. There was the main entrance, where I had just been using the intercom, and the back stairway which led to the same street as the main entrance via a hallway. There was also a rear entrance but it led to an alley with a tall locked gate, so it wasn’t really a way out.
It was early Spring and cold. There was no snow on the ground, but easterly breezes from the ocean had kept the air rather crisp. I was wearing my long black wool Harvard Coop coat (which I still have, by the way) and my dark brown cowboy hat. (Which I guess I still have too. I don’t get new clothes that often.) I shoved my hands menacingly into my pockets and stood menacingly by the curb near the secondary door, expecting the bad guy to come out into view at any time, so I could menace him. But what I was really waiting to see, besides the belated Cambridge Police force which had been summoned by this time about 15 minutes earlier, was the getaway car. There was no way that one person was in there robbing electronics without someone around here with a car to drive the electronics away in.
I was about to start looking in each of the many cars parked on the street for the one with the bag man hiding in it, when I saw headlights heading down Irving Street, which was one way going south. I could tell right away that this was not a police cruiser or detective. In fact, the car was a compact and it was driving very erratically. As the car got closer, I identified it thus: A stolen dark red small ford sedan with a standard transmission being driven by a man who does not know how to drive a standard transmission, and who persists in looking furtively around.
He got one look at me, staring at him menacingly, gave a start and got out of there. He rushed haltingly to the end of Irving and turned right. Just at that moment, from a side street just north of me, there turned a Cambridge Police Cruiser. I stepped into the street and waved the cruiser to a stop. Walking over to the window, as it rolled down, I said to the officer driving the car:
“You are looking for a stolen dark red small ford sedan with a standard transmission being driven by someone who does not know how to drive a standard transmission, and who persists in looking furtively around. That would be the bag man. He just turned right there (pointing). If you’re quick, you’ve got ‘em.”
And with that the cruiser accelerated down the street, bubble gum lights turning on, screeching through the right turn, and a moment later the bag man was in the bag.
A few seconds after that two more cruisers pulled up and pretty soon there were three Cambridge cops standing in front of the building. Before I got a chance to speak to them, the secondary door to the apartment building opened and out came a man. He was about 30 years old, African American, and his name was Jack.
The police immediately grabbed him, one cop on each side, another with one hand on his revolver and the other hand pulling out his whacking tool (some sort of night stick).
“Hey, hey, what are you doing? I’m the manager! I’m the building manager!”
The police ignored him and started to twist his arms back to throw on the cuffs. I walked calmly, and whitely, over to the fray.
“Excuse me, officers, this man is indeed the building manager. His name is Jack.”
Instantly, the police unhanded Jack and stood back.
“Officers, the man you are looking for is still in the building and is carrying one or two electronic devices, unless he’s dumped them somewhere.”
“Hey, man, that’s right. He’s up on the third or fourth floor right now,” added Jack, pointing, pulling out his keys and opening the door for the police to enter the building.
“Thanks!” one of the officers said to me (not to Jack) as the three of them cautiously headed down the dark hallway to the stairs.
I chatted with Jack for a while, the police came out with their man, a tow truck came by to pick up the stolen Ford. A few weeks later I received a commendation from the District Attorney for my efforts.
All I can say at this point is that it is a good thing there was a white guy on the scene to straighten everything out. Twenty years ago. But of course, I’m sure things are very different now in Cambridge, MA.