Mike the Mad Biologist

For those who haven’t heard, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested by the Cambridge Police (the charges were later dropped). According to Gates’ attorney:

Professor Gates was driven to his home by a driver for a local car company. Professor Gates attempted to enter his front door, but the door was damaged. Professor Gates then entered his rear door with his key, turned off his alarm, and again attempted to open the front door. With the help of his driver they were able to force the front door open, and then the driver carried Professor Gates’ luggage into his home.

Professor Gates immediately called the Harvard Real Estate office to report the damage to his door and requested that it be repaired immediately. As he was talking to the Harvard Real Estate office on his portable phone in his house, he observed a uniformed officer on his front porch. When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University. The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into his kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver’s license to the officer. Both include Professor Gates’ photograph, and the license includes his address.

Professor Gates then asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates’ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates. As Professor Gates followed the officer to his own front door, he was astonished to see several police officers gathered on his front porch. Professor Gates asked the officer’s colleagues for his name and badge number. As Professor Gates stepped onto his front porch, the officer who had been inside and who had examined his identification, said to him, “Thank you for accommodating my earlier request,” and then placed Professor Gates under arrest. He was handcuffed on his own front porch.

Carol Rose, like many other commentators, thinks this was a result of racism:

The arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. after he was confronted by police while trying to open the front door to his home is the latest reminder that racism is alive and well even in the most wealthy and progressive enclaves of Massachusetts.

But I actually don’t think this is about race, but a challenge to police authority. Basically, once Gates’ challenged the officer’s authority–and mind you, he had already shown the officer his identification–by asking the officer to identify himself, which is Gates’ right to do, the officer viewed this as a threat. Police officers do this all the time–in ‘bad’ neighborhoods. Talk to people who live across the river in Roxbury or Dot, and this isn’t unusual behavior. More than one police officer would describe these neighborhoods in language that isn’t that different from the way U.S. soldiers describe Basra. With that mindset comes a strong belief that an individual situation must be strictly controlled. ‘Mouthing off’–that is, exercising your rights–is an attempt by the potential perpetrator to gain control. If you’ve been around long enough, you have probably experienced this in one form or another.

And, in some situations, this is probably warranted: police, on occasion, do have to deal with pretty awful, and more importantly, dangerous people. But the problem is most people aren’t criminals, and they have this funny dislike of being presumed guilty when they’re not. One of the insidious things over the last decade resulting from the rise of the hybrid Nanny-Security state is that there has been a growing acceptance that our security forces should treat people as potential criminals first, and free citizens second (nothing has helped more than the rise of pointless airport security, which doesn’t really keep us secure, but does desensitize us to security intrusions).

The real shocker is that this treatment happened to a ‘respectable’ person in a ‘good’ neighborhood.

Troll-be-gone: Before some shithead goes on about how Gates’ wants the police to not catch criminals breaking into his house, Gates showed the police officer his ID.

Comments

  1. #1 Stacey C.
    July 23, 2009

    I’m seriously on the fence about this one. On the one hand, working as an office person at an ‘elite liberal arts college’ I know some professors whose arrogance and ego can take your breath away. On the other hand, I’ve seen cops do some very obvious racial profiling and acting like a dick. I think this is one of those situations where you have to say, unless you were there you can’t know what actually happened. BUT I don’t think he committed a crime no matter what happened. Unless he was screaming obscenities (and even that’s debatable) or putting his hands on the cop’s person, he wasn’t doing anything that warranted arrest.

  2. #2 coeruleus
    July 23, 2009

    Certainly noticed the harsh tone of BPD when they broke up a Halloween party of 30-somethings postdocs in Rox (Mission Hill) last year. Throwing people against the wall and threatening to arrest me for wearing a priest outfit. I calmly asked one of them to consider the fact that the person he was assaulting was a foreigner and might not be able to understand his commands as well as we did. That set the other officer into a tirade (my ears are still ringing!).

    Very inappropriate behavior on their part.

  3. #3 ...
    July 23, 2009

    Regardless of racism, that cop’s behavior was still inappropriate.

  4. #4 Art
    July 23, 2009

    When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there.

    [This is a failure to comply. Getting a suspect out of the house is intended to protect both people by removing the chances and risk of there being hidden weapons or accomplices. Police who have to enter a confined place put themselves at greater risk, are more nervous and prone to overreact to sudden moves. Which puts the suspect at risk.]

    [Also note that in Gates own words, as opposed to his lawyers it went like this:
    "I said ‘Officer, can I help you?’ And he said, ‘Would you step outside onto the porch.’ And the way he said it, I knew he wasn’t canvassing for the police benevolent association. All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger. And I said to him no, out of instinct. I said, ‘No, I will not.’"

    From:http://www.theroot.com/views/skip-gates-speaks?page=0,1

    A much clearer refusal to comply.]

    The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University.

    [This is entirely meaningless as any suspect can be expected to make a similar claim.]

    The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into his kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver’s license to the officer. Both include Professor Gates’ photograph, and the license includes his address.

    [There is no way for the police to check the validity of these documents immediately so the ID and workplace remain plausible but tentative. Typically the police would retire to a patrol car and use the computer to check the IDs. The police have to assume that the ID and DL may have been picked up during a break-in. His resemblance to the picture on the DL may be coincidental or because he is breaking into a relatives house.]

    [Also, in Gates own words, after he handed over the IDs he refused to answer a question.
    "So he’s looking at my ID, he asked me another question, which I refused to answer." From above site.
    In effect preventing the police from making an initial assessment of the ID's validity]

    Professor Gates then asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates’ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates.

    [The old ploy of demanding name and badge number doesn't work and is entirely meaningless. It is seen by the police as a delaying tactic. The uniform and badge are legally sufficient ID for the police to demand compliance. Names and badge numbers are shown on reports. The idea that someone could bring a situation to a halt while all the police file by and provide the Names and Badge numbers is ludicrous. That police have to provide them on demand is an urban myth.]

    As Professor Gates followed the officer to his own front door, he was astonished to see several police officers gathered on his front porch. Professor Gates asked the officer’s colleagues for his name and badge number.

    [It didn't work the first or third time so why not be annoying and make the same useless demands again.]

    As Professor Gates stepped onto his front porch, the officer who had been inside and who had examined his identification, said to him, “Thank you for accommodating my earlier request,” [acknowledging the earlier failure to comply] and then placed Professor Gates under arrest. He was handcuffed on his own front porch.

    [Note: failure to step out when asked usually means the police go in, throw you to the floor, cuff you and haul you out. The number of police present demonstrates that they were preparing to do just that. The policeman's delay in dragging Gates out and tolerance for resistance shows a considerable amount of restraint.]

    ————-
    Sounds to me like the police showed more restraint than the law requires. It remains to be shown how the response would have been different if Gates was white and showed a similar amount of resistance.

    What Gates did in failing to step out and answer questions would get most people in most towns thrown to the ground, cuffed and hauled off.

    Like it or not if the police show up and ask you to step out you do it. You don’t demand badge numbers like a blithering fool. You don’t claim racism. If they are racists screaming about racism is just going to annoy them more. If they aren’t it won’t make any difference. You also don’t argue constitutionality or legality of any searches or procedure. Those are issues for your lawyer and the judge to hash out. Police don’t do legal or constitutional arguments.

    The priorities for police are:
    1) Control the situation.
    2) Limit risk to the public and officers.
    3) Document events.

    Questioning, cuffing, detainment, and arrest are not punishment. They are mechanisms to accomplish the above.

  5. #5 BAllanJ
    July 23, 2009

    Hey Art. Sounds like you live in a Police State.

  6. #6 Owen
    July 23, 2009

    Like it or not if the police show up and ask you to step out you do it. You don’t demand badge numbers like a blithering fool. You don’t claim racism. If they are racists screaming about racism is just going to annoy them more. If they aren’t it won’t make any difference. You also don’t argue constitutionality or legality of any searches or procedure. Those are issues for your lawyer and the judge to hash out. Police don’t do legal or constitutional arguments.

    Why?

  7. #7 Eric
    July 23, 2009

    Art:

    “The old ploy of demanding name and badge number doesn’t work and is entirely meaningless. … That police have to provide them on demand is an urban myth.”
    From Massachusetts General Laws:

    Section 98D. Each city or town shall issue to every full time police officer employed by it an identification card bearing his photograph and the municipal seal. Such card shall be carried on the officer’s person, and shall be exhibited upon lawful request for purposes of identification.

    Also, as far as being required to step outside. From this article:

    There’s nothing to stop an officer from requesting your presence on the front porch or asking you questions, but he cannot force you to identify yourself or come out of your house without probable cause. (The rules are different for drivers and immigrants, who are required to provide identification upon request.) If you don’t feel like chatting, ask the officer whether you are free to go about your business. If he answers no, you are being detained, which means the officer must acknowledge and abide by your full menu of civil rights, including the famous Miranda warnings.

  8. #8 Sam
    July 23, 2009

    In general I agree that it seems to be more of a theme of questioning police authority than of racism. I think some of the points Art made were actually valid, but I don’t agree that asking to verify the officer’s identity before leaving the protection of his home was out of line. I probably would have complied with the request, but that would put me at risk – what if the man at the door was trying to lure me out of my home for some criminal purpose? I have seen the way that police magnify a situation in order to get a suspect into custody (in my case, having nothing to do with race as the suspect was caucasian). I sympathize with their need to keep dangerous situations under control, but I do also believe that the rights of private citizens should not be taken lightly. Besides, in this case, they had no need to take him into custody other than to prove a point.

  9. #9 Dave X
    July 23, 2009

    Getting Gates to step outside into the public space makes the disorderly conduct charge possible — http://www.samefacts.com/archives/crime_control_/2009/07/nightmare_on_ware_street.php

  10. #10 nails
    July 23, 2009

    “The old ploy of demanding name and badge number doesn’t work and is entirely meaningless.”

    The use of the word ‘ploy’ is kind of screwed up art. Ploy to what? Know who was in his house? As if that is a weird request to have after you have given an ID to someone. He is an old man with a cane and is rightly concerned about his safety in such a situation.

    Also, people get arrested for impresonating the police all the time. Some of the impersonators sexually assault, rob, or otherwise harass other people. The reason it works it because of unquestioning obedience to police commands that most people display.

  11. #11 Owen
    July 23, 2009

    I agree nails. It doesn’t make sense that a uniform, badge and name tag be sufficient identification for a police officer. Once someone carrying a gun and handcuffs has control of you, anything can happen.

  12. #12 Shenda
    July 23, 2009

    Art,

    Do you have any citations for your comments on your “refusal to comply” comments? I seriously doubt that declining to leave your residence at a police officer’s request is a violation of law. Please provide appropriate legal citations.

  13. #13 Shenda
    July 23, 2009

    Here is the MA law on police identifying themselves. It does not appear that the officer in question complied with this law.

    Chapter 41: Section 98D. Identification cards

    Section 98D. Each city or town shall issue to every full time police officer employed by it an identification card bearing his photograph and the municipal seal. Such card shall be carried on the officer’s person, and shall be exhibited upon lawful request for purposes of identification.
    Source: http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/41-98d.htm

  14. #14 NJ
    July 23, 2009

    Police don’t do legal or constitutional arguments behavior.

    Fixed that for ya there, Artie.

  15. #15 JThompson
    July 23, 2009

    @Art:
    So what you’re saying, in essence, is “You have no rights in your own home.”
    The man was arrested for disorderly conduct for daring to challenge a cop’s authority. In. His. Own. Home.

    It doesn’t help the cop’s case that he admitted he realized early on that Gates was the homeowner.
    That means he’s either a racist that wanted to hassle a minority or a facist that wanted to hassle absolutely anyone. People that defend racists are idiots by proxy. People that defend anything with a badge on reflex are usually just authoritarian cowards. Take your pick.

    Questioning, cuffing, detainment, and arrest are not punishment. They are mechanisms to accomplish the above.

    Arrest isn’t punishment? I can’t think of a better description of “disorderly conduct” than punishment for asking a question that a cop didn’t like. I’ve never seen a disorderly conduct arrest that didn’t mean that, as a matter of fact.

  16. #16 Leslie
    July 24, 2009

    Why is it that Gates is supposed to accept without question that the man at his door is a police officer merely because he’s wearing a uniform, which could have been picked up at any costume distributor, while his PHOTO ID is presumed to be fake until verified by the officer.

  17. #17 Roadtripper
    July 24, 2009

    Now the Cambridge PD says the officer who arrested Gates is, in fact an expert on racial profiling. I don’t think this helps them — I mean, if he’s their top man on profiling, I’d hate to see one of their officers who’s not real clear on this subject.

    Or maybe ‘profiling expert’ doesn’t mean what they think. I can hear how this conversation starts….

    Cambridge Police Chief: “Sergeant, when we said the department needed a ‘profiling expert’, that didn’t mean we wanted an officer who excelled at profiling!”

    Rt

  18. #18 Tim
    July 24, 2009

    It seems to me that two people’s prides were hurt. Hard to say that one was more right than another, unless I would’ve witnessed it. As far as police demanding you to come outside, perhaps the officer should’ve explained a bit more that he needed that to happen in order to check the rest of the house out while providing the professor’s safety–the professor would then have to concede the possiblity that even he did not hear/witness the people/persons breaking in. Better yet, after the officer verified the identity of the owner, perhaps he could’ve ASKED to check the rest of the house, just in case other intruders were present. ‘Art’ and ‘Owen’ are WAY OFF BASE in their contention that you do what the officer says–that’s bullsh@$–especially to educated people. They need a warrant or suspicion of illegal activity-neither of which they had with the professor UPON I.D. VERIFICATION. Again, if it was for genuine concern that other intruders might be inside, that should’ve been better explained. Then, the professor’s pride would’ve not been hurt (or race card not whipped out.)

    It seems like Shenda and Dave X have the law down, not ‘Art,’ in that the professor had the right to NOT step outside-and should never had to avoid the disorderly conduct-and had the right to request the officer’s name and I.D. The officer did not comply and by letter of the law, ‘Art,’ had to provide his info. The professor did break the old street rule our dads taught us-for whites and black-”Don’t antagonize a cop.” He did so by requesting for the badge i.d. and, god forbid, exercising his right to not comply without a presented warrant or grounds for suspicion of crime by the officer. But I contend that this all could’ve been avoided with better communication.
    Lastly, I’ll say this: if this officer was acting according to “national” standards, according to his chief, then our national standards need to be reviewed. Police need to be trained to not be threatened by those who appear to have a grasp of the law and their rights, while professors need to not be threatened by those who have authority that can, in some circumstances, exceed what the professor believes is legal (see the “street rule”). A little better communication by the police, please, and a little more COMMON sense by the professor, please.

  19. #19 Wister
    July 24, 2009

    Hey Art. Sounds like you live in a Police State.

    Hey BAllanJ. Sounds like you live in an ideological fantasy land with your head so far up your ass you need a glass stomach to see where you are going.

    Gates is clearly one of those useless pieces of human shit who politicizes every breath every person takes, and has a chip on his shoulder that could shelter 50 people from the rain. You “oh noes, this is clearly a police state” folks are absolutely disassociated from anything resembling reality.

    I hope someone does break into Gates’ house in the near future and cleans the place out, and no one bothers to call the cops. Fuck him, and fuck the ideology addicts who are destroying society, looking for bogeymen in every shadow. You are the true filth of this world.

  20. #20 Richard Eis
    July 24, 2009

    If he showed his ID oh wise and wonderful Wister, then why was there a need to arrest him?

    Ah but I forgot, the police always do a good job, there are no corrupt politicians, no extra training is ever needed and if something bad happens, well we shouldn’t try to correct the matter. In fact it was probablyt their fault anyway.

  21. #21 NJ
    July 24, 2009

    Wister, we know you are upset that your prepaid subscription to Der Völkischer Beobachter was canceled before you got all of the issues you paid for, but don’t take it out on us.

  22. #22 Gaythia
    July 24, 2009

    I think that this is about race and not a challenge to police authority. In my opinion, the racial profiling occurred BEFORE Gates had a chance to say anything. Throwing in sex stereotypes would have changed the situation also.

    In the first place, there is the matter of the neighbor who called the police. If it had been me at the door, (white, female, definitely older than teenager) what would the neighbor have been likely to think they had seen? A potentially burglar or a woman who couldn’t seem to get her door open? The neighbor might have even been inclined to come over and offer me help.

    I believe that if I had gone to my door, it is plausible that the police reaction would have been different than what Gates experienced. Would the police have viewed me as a potential burglar or someone who might have needed to be protected from said hypothetical burglar? I certainly would not have wanted to step outside. I think that the police officers would have been likely to think that reluctance was legitimate. Sex, age, and race stereotypes would all probably have worked in my favor and make the situation much less confrontational, as it should be for everyone, most of the time.

    Humans like to categorize things. The historical development of the science of Biology for example owes a lot to human interest in taxonomy. Dealing in stereotypes is wrong, but an inappropriately shallow outgrowth of something quite natural. As trained professionals, the police need to guard against reacting to stereotypes. An important component of their job involves evaluating what eye witnesses think they saw and determining what is and isn’t actual evidence they need to act on. It is a skill that should be based in social science.

    The primary duty of police officers is to protect law abiding citizens, as Gates was. They have a complicated and sometimes dangerous job. We ask police to react quickly, yet sensibly. If truly confident in their abilities and skill at performing their duties, they should not respond inappropriately to legitimate questions and should not view them as a challenge to their authority.

  23. #23 Ormond Otvos
    July 29, 2009

    Art has the right of it, because he considers the state of mind of the officer, and remembers that the officer was there, as the officer explained, responding to a 911 call about TWO MEN breaking and entering. At a minimum, I would want an investigating officer under those circumstances to check the house for the other reported suspect, EVEN after IDing Gates.

    Most of the ideological comments ignore the facts of the case, so they can make Gates look the profiled victim. As the lady says, professors can be really arrogant. I’d say Gates would qualify, judging just by his comments since this incident became public.

    The Mad Blogger quotes the attorney’s statement as fact, which is surprising, since it’s a paid opinion. I suppose he will also quote the views of Crowley? Nope.

    Game to Crowley.

  24. #24 Paul Dorio
    July 29, 2009

    First, the blog comments only include the Gates’ attorney side of the story. I wonder how the ACTUAL conflict appeared? Few people bother to step back and wonder if, perhaps, Mr Gates, esteemed professor that he is, might possibly have crossed the line – the President finally acknowledged the same possibility – AFTER first calling the entire Cambridge police department idiots by saying “they acted stupidly.” (I watched that speech/press conference).

    Second, anything in this country that involves a black man ends up having to do with racism. Bullshit.

    In my opinion, BOTH men got annoyed with each other – and both men probably crossed respective lines of reason. It just so happens that the policeman has a gun, badge and handcuffs. Anyone else want to test their local law enforcement agents and see what kind of treatment they get?

    I’m not condoning either person’s behavior. I just accept realities for what they are – the police are there to protect us. Let’s make it easy for them to identify who the good guys are, instead of always raising the flags of indignation and racism when we think they are being too harsh on us.

  25. #25 Nan
    July 30, 2009

    Wow. Going by some of the above comments (e.g., Art, Wister)I guess the Constitution’s been repealed.

    Incidentally, it is Massachusetts state law that when a citizen asks for a police officer’s name and badge number, the officer must comply. There’s nothing unreasonable about asking a law enforcement officer to actually obey the law.

    My own take is that it was probably more Sgt. Crowley reacting to “contempt of cop” than being racist, but the end result was the same: a PR nightmare and a ton of paperwork. That’s the part that gets me — cops hate paperwork. How could any LEO be stupid enough to not recognize that arresting a Harvard professor for being obnoxious in his own home was going to generate enough paperwork to fell a small forest?

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