Review of Gates arrest: Everyone acted stupidly

An independent review of the arrest of Henry “Skip” Gates at his house last summer concludes that, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, everyone involved “acted stupidly.”  Both Gates and the police missed chances to de-escalate the confrontation, the report concludes, mainly out of fear of the other side:

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the police sergeant who arrested him last July after a confrontation outside his home both missed opportunities to “ratchet down” the situation and end things more calmly, according to a review of the case released Wednesday.

The independent review said “misunderstandings and failed communications” and a “certain degree of fear” each man had for the other led to the six-minute dispute that ended with the renowned black scholar being arrested by the veteran white Cambridge police sergeant. …

The situation at Gates’ home quickly escalated when it shouldn’t have, according to the review put together by a 12-member panel assembled in September. No one on the panel had direct ties to the Cambridge Police Department.

The report suggests that Crowley could have more clearly explained what he was doing and why he was doing it, especially after being shown Gates’ license and university ID. For his part, Gates could have used a more respectful tone to address the officer.

The Boston Globe gets a little more specific in its report on the review:

But once he saw Gates’s identification card, Crowley “could have taken greater pains to explain the uncertainty and potential dangers of responding to a serious crime-in-progress call” and why “police officers must focus on the safety of the public and their own safety, and why his need to assess and mitigate any risks may have caused him to adopt a seemingly abrupt tone,” the report said.

Gates, for his part, “could have tried to understand the situation from the point of view of a police officer responding to a 911 call about a break-in in progress, and could have spoken respectfully to Sergeant Crowley and accommodated his request to step outside at the beginning of their encounter,” the report said.

The report said “communications clearly were a problem” in the incident, with the police officer saying he “couldn’t get a word in edgewise” and the professor reporting that he considered the officer “unresponsive to his questions.”

The arrest may have been legal, the report said, but it observed that some police actions that are conducted according to policy “are not necessarily the best outcomes to a situation and may undermine the relationship between the police and the communities they serve.”

And speaking of acting stupidly:

Neither man, in interviews with the panel, said he would have acted differently.

In other words, no one learned anything — which is also hardly unexpected.  The review appears to have dispensed with the race issue, at least, which is a relief.  It just turns out that two men couldn’t communicate in a confrontation, hardly a remarkable occurrence.  As I wrote at the time:

As it happens, I have also encountered hostile police responding to a house, many years ago when I was in college, at a party that drew noise complaints.  Someone mouthed off about a warrant, which provoked the officer to charge into the house without permission, thump his finger repeatedly into the smart-alec’s chest, and threaten to arrest everyone at the house.  His partner, obviously the wiser of the two, pulled him out of the house by the arm and asked us to reduce the noise — which we had already agreed to do.  Both the smart-alec and the officer were white.

Do a few officers have judgment problems about “disorderly conduct” and are too thin-skinned about getting challenged?  Sure, and if the evidence supports that conclusion in this case, it would call for some retraining and at least an apology.  Jumping to a conclusion that it’s about race when there appears to be no evidence except by inference is bad enough from the media (although perhaps understandable from Gates himself), let alone from the President of the United States. Sometimes it pays to keep quiet before having all the facts.

So everyone acted a little stupidly, as it turns out, and that stupidity had nothing to do with ethnicity.  And by everyone, I include the Chief Executive who decided to shoot off his mouth about an incident despite admitting that he didn’t have all of the facts.

Update: This is a good moment to review last year’s guest opinion of Professor John Evans Evans-John at Iowahawk on the burden of the Harvard faculty in their community.