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Scholar’s Arrest Illustrates Harm of Police Overzealousness

| July 26, 2009

The New Yorker’s Steve Coll was on assignment in Nigeria recently, dining alone “over spicy rice and cold beer” and entertaining himself with the letters to the editor in a local paper. One in particular, which Coll reproduced in his blog, recounts a man’s absurd run-in with cops. The man was carrying a bag. The cops demanded to see what was in it. A laptop. They demanded to see the receipt. He didn’t have it, so he was accused of theft. “While some police officers are courteous in their approach,” the letter-writer wrote, “some are actually rude. I also want to call on the police hierarchy to give more training to policemen.”

Coll posted that entry the day after the story broke stateside of the arrest, following an equally absurd run-in with cops, of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the celebrity (and celebrated) professor and director of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African American Research. I don’t know if Coll intended the irony of the coincidence. He might as well have, a reminder that rude – or just plain stupid – policing is a universal hazard most of us have to contend with at one time or another.

Gates’ story is familiar by now, even in Nigeria. He was returning to his Cambridge, Mass., home from a trip abroad last week, just after noon. The front door was jammed. He came in through a back door. Finding the door still jammed, Gates asked his driver to try to force the front door from outside. Gates then called a repairman. A woman saw the driver forcing the door. She called 9-1-1, reasonably enough. James Crowley, a Cambridge police officer, responded, saw Gates through the glass-paned front door of Gates’ house, and after Gates asked the standard question – “May I help you, officer?” – asked him to step outside.

Gates, reasonably enough, refused. He’s in his home. He has every right to refuse not only to step outside but to answer questions. The public servant in this equation, remember, is the cop, not the resident. Gates asked the officer to identify himself and became confrontational, indignant over being questioned, asked if he was alone, and seeing the officer step in uninvited, Gates lashed out with phrases that have made the rounds of every talk show’s loops (“Why, because I’m black in America?” “You don’t know who you’re messing with” and “I’ll speak with your mama outside”). Gates was eventually cuffed and charged with that police-favored nightstick to one’s rights: disorderly conduct.

The charges were dropped a few days later, but not before the story trumped most others, especially after President Obama summed up the case (accurately, I thought) in his Wednesday news conference: “It’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”

It’s not a race issue, as most of the debate is framing it. It’s a police issue. Crowley said he complied with his department’s policy. That’s the problem: The policy is based on the assumption that an officer’s request (to produce identification, to step outside one’s home, to answer “reasonable” questions) should be complied with. It’s a prevalent assumption. It’s also wrong. It wouldn’t be wrong in France, Germany or even Nigeria. In the United States, where a law-abiding person’s rights trump a police officer’s demands, it is.

Early in the encounter, according to the officer’s own police report – and this is key – “I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence.” That’s where it should have ended, regardless of Gates’ behavior. It’s not against the law to be rude, to be sensitive to racial issues (however imaginary) or even to call an officer names, especially in one’s own home. The problem is that, often enough, law enforcement officers think they’re owed universal submission and “respect” regardless of the situation – not just where suspected lawbreaking is taking place, in which case they have wide latitude. By the officer’s own admission, that wasn’t the case in Gates’ case.

This was, according to Crowley’s police report: “I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me.” Who cares? Personal pique isn’t the tipping point of a law enforcement officer’s actions. Law-breaking is. There’s no question in my mind that Gates was somewhat rude. That’s irrelevant. His rudeness pales compared with Crowley’s presumption that not complying with his orders is cause for arrest.

Gates is famous and rich enough to demolish the stupidity of the system. But, in similarly power-tripped situations, most people are too happy to comply, or too fearful not to. That much deference and glib cheerleading for “law and order” are the chills radiating up what’s left of the Bill of Rights’ spine.

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