Will President Obama Walk Back His ‘Police Acted Stupidly’ Comment?

Update: Full police report here.

It is deeply frustrating to me that the question getting the most attention from last night’s news conference is this one, about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry “Skip” Gates:

Here’s a transcript of the exchange:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. Recently Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I should say at the outset that “Skip” Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts. What’s been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house, there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place — so far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into — well, I guess this is my house now so — (laughter) — it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago — (laughter) — here I’d get shot. (Laughter.)

But so far, so good. They’re reporting — the police are doing what they should. There’s a call, they go investigate what happens. My understanding is at that point Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in, I’m sure there’s some exchange of words, but my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his ID to show that this is his house. And at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct — charges which are later dropped.

Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in this society. That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made.

And yet the fact of the matter is, is that this still haunts us. And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and oftentime for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be.

The President qualified his remarks, and said what most of us were thinking.  In what way was it smart for the police to arrest a man for breaking into his own home?  He stepped away from the question of race, simply pointing out that the problem of profiling leads to this kind of question, regardless of the specifics involved.

The exchange is being treated as a revolutionary moment in racial politics, with the President “leaping” into the issue, according to the NY Times, and has led to “disappointment” from the arresting officer.

Now comes word that the President may walk his statement back.

Not only were there more important things discussed at last night’s presser, the President’s remarks were fine.  He dodged the question of race entirely, pointing out that the history of profiling might account for Gates’ actions, not the cops’.

As for whether they acted stupidly, let’s grant that the police account is 100% true:

Sgt. James Crowley responded to Gates’ home near Harvard University last week to investigate a report of a burglary and demanded Gates show him identification. Police say Gates at first refused and accused the officer of racism.

Gates was charged with disorderly conduct. The charge was dropped Tuesday, and Gates has since demanded an apology from Crowley.

If Gates overreacted at first, then showed his ID, what reason did the officer have for arresting him, other than to put him in his place?  This was an exertion of authority, plain and simple, and was not necessary.  The officer might have been rightly offended at the accusation of racism, but it’s his job to think more clearly in this situation than a civilian.

Any way you look at it, since the charges against Gates were dropped, it’s tough to argue that his reaction warranted the arrest.  The President shouldn’t shrink away from a reasonable statement.

The main frustration, for me, is that this exchange is going to end up dominating coverage of the most important issue facing America at the moment, healthcare reform.  This is just another example of reporters doing their jobs, and news editors ignoring it.



  1. No, it’s an example of an obsequious reporter trying give Obama a lifeline in a foundering press conference. And the reason it dominates is the lapdog media know it’s the only question he answered without sounding like a moron. Rambling and incoherent were the hallmarks of the rest of the press conference.

    The Mark Sanford school of pressers.

  2. I agree its a shame this is the lead story from yesterdays news conference. Alnd as for Officer Crowley, he acted like a rookie cop. A professional cop could have kept this situation from escalating to the point where it is national news.

  3. […] Tommy Christopher reports that the White House may soon retreat from Obama’s comments, but he thinks they were […]

  4. “Alnd as for Officer Crowley, he acted like a rookie cop. A professional cop could have kept this situation from escalating to the point where it is national news.”

    You know so much about policing do you? The officer acted correctly as did the rest of the officers watching Gates act like an ass, including a black officer who must have been embarrassed as hell for the man.

    Yelling at the police is not a crime, nor should it be, but continued yelling and harassment when officers are trying to do their jobs is against the law – obstruction of justice, public nuisance, etc.

    Gates is a jerk as evidence by the whole “mama” insult alone.

    And the president should have stayed the hell out of it. Talk about rookies.

  5. Tommy – as a professional communicator, I think this was deliberate.

    Not the “lifeline” that absentee mentions, but rather an intentionally-placed distraction.

    It’s red meat guaranteed to make the rabid conservatives salivate, and in the meantime takes the pressure off Health Care for the time being. It’s pretty well acknowledged the Health Care bill wasn’t going through right now, but the deep pools of Rabid Conservative Saliva will ensure everyone will eventually place the blame on the right for derailing progress on Health Care, and placing the Health Care Bill proponents on higher moral ground for the next engagement.

    Very little that happens within the messaging and agenda-setting of this administration is an accident. Team Obama learned all too well from Team Bush, and operates without the air of suspicion that (rightfully) followed the predecessors.

    Just my pair of pennies…

  6. Thank you for recognizing my knowledge of policing. For you and others who are unfamiliar with negotiations, perhaps start by reading “Getting to Yes.”

    The officers operated as inexperienced cops. Not that I would expect Cambridge police officers to be equal to big city cops. A NY, LA, or Chicago cop would have responded to the concerns and been on their way.

    Why by the way would a black officer be embarassed by Gates? Are you implying the white officers feel shame and embarassment every time they round up some white people? I thought we lived in a post racial society.

    So if you were arrested by cops, black or white, in your home because one of your neighbors thought you were breaking in, you would laugh it off?

    Whether the President made a rookie mistake is debatable. In fact, many would argue its the first time he didn’t try to appear as though racism is not real in this country.

  7. 4wrdthnkndad , you are hitting about 9.5 on the insufferably pompous-o-meter. What is clear is that you are either unfamiliar with the facts of this case or are simply misrepresenting them. Professor Gates was not arrested because he was lawfully in his home, but rather because he was disturbing the peace OUTSIDE of his home.

    Your suggestion that the officer employ the strategies detailed in “Getting to Yes” on a man screaming insults about his mother was priceless. Despite your claims to have “knowledge of policing”, it is clear that you don’t know the first thing about policing–“big city” or otherwise.

  8. […] Which brings me to Tommy’s on the money post. […]

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