Friday, July 24, 2009

President Obama is Right to Say Gates Arrest Handled "Stupidly"

According to Bloomberg, the President is standing by his statement that Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley acted "stupidly" in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home after he had determined that no crime had been committed:
“I am surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement,” Obama said in an interview for ABC’s “Nightline” program broadcast last night. “It was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home....In this case “everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed,” Obama said. It “doesn’t make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he’s not causing a serious disturbance.””
It was refreshing to hear the President admit that it was obvious someone in a position of authority had done something "stupidly." President Bush no doubt would have said: "Heck of a job, Crowley!" Now public employees might be on notice--the new President will no longer cover up for every stupid move they make.

It's about time.

Consider the question of intentionality. Was the term "stupidly" a mistake, or off-the-cuff, or "unscripted," as some pundits have stated? I don't think so. It was a mot juste, obviously chosen carefully in advance by a legal scholar. Lynn Sweet had been welcome to ask her question, so that President Obama could set down a marker.

Unlike those who argue one needs all the facts to judge this case, I think we have enough information available to say that President Obama--who taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago and had been editor of the Harvard Law Review, for those who think he may not know what he is talking about--could reasonably determine the arresting officer handled the Gates case "stupidly."

1. All charges against Gates were dropped. This is an admission that there was no case. If there was no case, why was Gates arrested by Sgt. Crowley? Behaving "stupidly" is the simplest explanation. "Brutally," "sadistically" "psychopathologically," "criminally," "abusively," "outrageously," "cowardly," "insanely," or other alternatives might have been considered, however, the President showed excellent judgement by settling on the adverb: "stupidly."

By the way, President Obama definitely wasn't calling the officer "stupid." He was saying that he acted in a stupid manner. Anyone who doesn't understand that smart people can do things "stupidly" from time-to-time...well, they should learn the difference between an adverb and an adjective. And anyone who has objected to Obama's statement on those grounds...objected "stupidly."

(Anyone who argues that charges against Gates were dropped only because he is a VIP implies that the Cambridge Police Department behaves "corruptly"--which is a more serious charge than "stupidly," in my book.)

2. Gates' arrest resulted in a national scandal and embarrassment to the city of Cambridge, MA, its police department, and Harvard University. Had the police commissioner, mayor, Harvard president, or other officials intervened before Gates had been locked up in jail for four hours, they would have been spared the national humiliation. Like Sgt. Crowley , these officials behaved "stupidly."

3. Sgt. Crowley "stupidly" admits in today's Washington Post that he had no reason to suspect Gates was a burglar:
Crowley, 42, said that, when he first saw Gates, in "my mind, I'm thinking, 'He does not look like someone who would break into the house.' " At the same time, however, "from the time that he opened the door, it seemed that he was very upset, upset, very unhappy that I was there."
Nevertheless, Sgt. Crowley confessed to the Post that he remained in the house and "stupidly" threatened an already upset Professor Gates, thereby escalating the incident:
As the confrontation escalated, Crowley said he warned Gates that he risked arrest.

"The second warning was with me holding a set of handcuffs in my hands -- something I really didn't want to do," Crowley said in a radio interview. "The professor at any time could have resolved the issue by quieting down and/or going back inside his house."
The intelligent thing to have done, as Police Chief Joseph Thomas of Southfield, Michigan told Ray Suarez on PBS's Newshour With Jim Lehrer last night, would have been to de-escalate the confrontation--something police officers are supposedly trained to do:
Let me go back. When I first saw that, what did I tell you? That could have been handled differently. It didn't mean that the officer committed a crime, but he could have handled that situation differently and defused that whole thing with the proper training, with the proper policies in place. That could have been avoided, and it was not.
I could go on and on and on...but even these three examples show that there's more than enough evidence that Sgt. Crowley behaved towards Professor Gates just as President Obama said: "stupidly."

BTW, If Sgt. Crowley really believes he handled the matter intelligently, he should welcome a lawsuit by Prof. Gates and subsequent public trial for the opportunity it would provide him to clear his name. That he has not simply declared, "I look forward to my day in court!" indicates that perhaps he may not be so confident that he did not behave "stupidly" towards Prof. Gates as he pretends.

You can also watch a 21-minute interview with Sgt. Crowley on WHDH-TV at this link and decide for yourself whether you think he acted "stupidly."

Along these lines, the local Cambridge, MA newspaper editorialized that the police department "bungled" the Gates case:
Whether you agree racial profiling was used in last week’s arrest of famed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Cambridge Police Department monumentally bungled this case.
The editorial concludes with an observation corroborating point 2, above:
Our city’s reputation has been damaged.

The public’s confidence in the men and women patrolling our streets will need repair.

It will take years to heal from the incidents of the past few days.
In my experience, "bungling" often results from acting "stupidly."

UPDATE: Here's Bill Cosby's interesting commentary, especially his final statement...