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Arrest of Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. was avoidable, report says

By Krissah Thompson
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; 1:45 PM

A nine-month investigation of the arrest last summer of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., which attracted the interest of President Obama and stirred a national conversation on racial profiling, found that the incident could have been avoided.

The report, was solicited by the Cambridge, Mass., police department and conducted by a committee of law enforcement and racial-bias experts. It is so far the most thorough review of the six minutes leading up to Gates's arrest. The report includes interviews with Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, and found that the arrest was sparked by an immediate misunderstanding and failed communications between the two men.

The incident was fed by a combustible mix of race, class, respect and police authority after Crowley was called to Gates's home in Cambridge to investigate a possible break-in.

After coming home from a trip to China, Gates found his front door jammed, so he and his driver began pushing their way in. A neighbor, thinking that the men were breaking into the house, called police.

When Crowley arrived, he found Gates in the house (the driver was gone) and asked him to step outside. Gates refused. When Crowley went into the house, Gates showed his Harvard identification card and his driver's license, which included his address. According to police, Gates then became angry and followed Crowley outside. He was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct, which was later dropped.

The arrest, which became a kind of national Rorschach test on racial profiling, deteriorated in the "first five nanoseconds," Gates told the committee.

Crowley said that he "had no choice" but to arrest Gates, who said he asked the officer whether he was being mistreated because he was African American. The committee faulted both men, saying Crowley "missed opportunities to find a better outcome." It chided Gates for not immediately stepping onto his porch as initially requested by the officer.

Both Gates and Crowley stood their ground in interviews conducted for the report, refusing to admit error. Crowley believed that Gates was being belligerent and unruly. Gates believed that he was being treated unfairly.

Obama, who initially called the arrest "stupid," ended the furious public debate over his comments by inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer. Obama said at the time that he believed the incident was a "teachable moment."

Still, the situation essentially remained unresolved with dueling versions about what happened and passionate disagreement among supporters of both men. The committee investigating the arrest, led by Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, was left to sort it all out. At the start of the investigation, Wexler said he was doubtful that there were any lessons to be learned.

"There was a certain degree of skepticism," he said. "People on the committee had preconceived ideas about what they thought happened. What really began to happen was we kind of put that aside, and we had to get at the facts."

The committee titled the report "Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities" because "both of the individuals contributed to the outcome unintentionally. Both had opportunities to try to ratchet down the encounter," Wexler said. "They were both looking at the same set of circumstances from different perspectives. They both had a certain degree of fear of each other."

The committee offers 10 recommendations for diffusing that fear, including encouraging police departments to offer training in how to de-escalate tensions when officers are not in danger, which Crowley did not do. Law enforcement officials should also take a hard look at cases where the only victim in a disorderly conduct charge is the police officer, as opposed to cases in which the arrested person had other victims, the committee said.

The report suggests that Crowley could have calmed Gates after he saw proof of the professor's residency and "taken greater pains" to explain the dangers of responding to a possible crime-in-progress.

Gates said that he would not have done anything differently -- except not follow Crowley out of his house, where he was arrested. The committee said Gates could have spoken to Crowley "more respectfully" and should have stepped outside of his home at the beginning of the encounter, as Crowley requested.

Neither Gates nor Crowley has responded to requests for interviews about the report. Gates's lawyer Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and expert on civil rights, released a book on the topic last month titled "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates and Race, Class and Crime in America." Ogletree determined that "the issues of race, class and crime were ever present" and included an epilogue with the stories of 100 prominent black men who have experienced racial profiling.

"To say that both gentleman could have handled it differently ignores the issues of power and control and authority," Ogletree said of the report. "Gates could not control the situation. The officer did."

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas said last week that the arrest was an aberration that does not affect how the department operates. A report last week by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that the department's handling of disorderly conduct cases from 2004 to 2009 was evenhanded. Of the 392 adults arrested for disorderly conduct, 57 percent were white and 34 percent were black. That racial breakdown almost exactly mirrored the racial composition of the population that Cambridge police investigated for disorderly conduct, the center's analysis shows.

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