Officer Tells His Side of the Story in Arrest of Harvard Scholar

"I have nothing to apologize for," police Sgt. James Crowley said. (Steven Senne - AP)
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By Krissah Thompson and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 24, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 23 -- What began as a prominent African American professor's dispute with a white police sergeant grew more complex Thursday as the officer spoke publicly for the first time and a fuller portrait of his life emerged.

Sgt. James Crowley said Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was combative from the moment the officer arrived at his house last week to respond to a call about a possible burglary. 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."

Crowley's account came on a day of dizzying debate over his actions, a furor that was touched off by President Obama's remarks at a news conference Wednesday night, when he linked Gates's arrest to the nation's long history of racial profiling and said the police had "acted stupidly."

The events drew Obama into the first racial controversy of his presidency. The personalized critique was rare for a president, and demonstrated the perspective Obama brings to the Oval Office.

"Three years ago, we would not have been having this conversation in this way," said Eddie S. Glaude, a professor of theology and African American studies at Princeton.

Obama stood by his criticism, telling ABC News's Terry Moran he was "surprised" his statement had sparked such controversy.

"I think 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," Obama told Moran in an interview set to air Thursday evening on "Nightline," excerpts from which were made available online.

The president called Crowley an "outstanding police officer" but emphasized that "it doesn't make sense to arrest a guy in his own home if he's not causing a serious disturbance."

After reports of Gates's arrest surfaced in the media, the charge -- disorderly conduct -- was dropped. Gates said he believes he did nothing that would have justified Crowley's actions, and the officer's police report makes it clear he concluded before the arrest that Gates was in his own home.

On Thursday, the Cambridge police commissioner, Robert C. Haas, described the department as "deeply pained" by Obama's criticism and said Crowley had followed proper protocol in making the arrest.

"I do not believe his actions were in any way racially motivated," Haas said. "Sergeant Crowley is a stellar member of this department and I rely on his judgment every day. He was thrust into a crime in progress, and he tried to work his way through the situation."

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