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Police Commissioner Defends Arrest Of Harvard Professor

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Police Commissioner Robert Haas speaks to reporters at Cambridge Police headquarters Thursday about the actions of Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley, who was criticized by President Obama after arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Massachusetts home. Also pictured is Cambridge Sgt. James DeFrancesco. (AP Photo)
Police Commissioner Robert Haas speaks to reporters at Cambridge Police headquarters Thursday about the actions of Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley, who was criticized by President Obama after arresting black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Massachusetts home. Also pictured is Cambridge Sgt. James DeFrancesco. (AP Photo)

From the State House to Harvard Square, the arrest by Cambridge Police last week of African-American Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates is having repercussions. Cambridge Police are defending the arrest even as they are forming a panel to look into the matter.

After a week of controversy, Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas held his first press conference to defend the sergeant who arrested Professor Gates. Haas said his officers were hurt when they heard President Obama say in a nationally televised press conference that the officers "acted stupidly" when they arrested Gates at his home.

"My response is that this department is deeply pained," Haas said, "and takes its professional pride seriously."

Haas said the arrest was not motivated by race. He said the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, who is white, followed all the proper procedures in arresting Gates. "Sergeant Crowley is a stellar member of this department. I rely on his judgment every day," Haas said.

"He's got a long career. He's brought up in this city," Haas went on. "He grew up in a very diverse community, and I don't consider him a rogue cop in any way. I think he basically did the best with the situation that was presented to him. He was thrust into a crime in progress, as it was reported, and he worked to try to work his way through that situation."

Sergeant Crowley responded to a report of a break-in at Gates' house. He found Gates inside the house and asked him to come out. Gates became upset. Thursday, in an interview with WEEI, Crowley described what happened next. "He was cautioned in the house, meaning: 'Calm down. Lower your voice,' " Crowley said. "Once we got outside in front of the general public and the police officers assembled there, two warnings. The second warning was me holding a set of handcuffs in my hand."

And then he arrested Gates, only to have the disorderly conduct charge dropped when it became public.

Crowley attended Cambridge's only public high school, the very diverse Rindge and Latin. The huge building sits just half a block from the house where Gates lives and where Crowley arrested him.

Gov. Deval Patrick has weighed in on Gates' arrest, saying, "In some ways, this is every black man's nightmare." But at a forum Thursday night at Roxbury Community College, African-American community members had more practical topics to discuss with the governor — like job losses and state budget cuts. (Meghna Chakrabarti/WBUR)
Gov. Deval Patrick has weighed in on Gates' arrest, saying, "In some ways, this is every black man's nightmare." But at a forum Thursday night at Roxbury Community College, African-American community members had more practical topics to discuss with the governor — like job losses and state budget cuts. (Meghna Chakrabarti/WBUR)

On Thursday, one of Gates' next-door neighbors criticized the president for injecting himself into the matter. "I think saying it was stupid might have been something inappropriate," said Dennis, whose brother served as a Cambridge police sergeant, and who didn't want to give his last name because he says he wants to keep his privacy. "I think they were answering to a call about a break-in, and so they were just doing their job."

At his barber shop on River Street, Frank Galloway had a very different perspective.

"How do you break into your own home when giving IDs to the police?" Galloway asked. "I've had a couple of run-ins with the police, yes. Not good. I'm pretty sure I've been pulled over because I'm black and I'm glad that it happened to a major figure. When it happens to average people, nobody pays attention, nobody cares, but when it happens to Skip Gates Jr., it becomes a national issue that needs to be paid attention to."

Some of Galloway's sentiments were echoed by Gov. Deval Patrick.

"In some ways, this is every black man's nightmare, and a reality for many black men," Patrick said. "As you understand the sequence of events — if I understand the sequence of events, because remember, I wasn't there and I have only the understanding I have from what I've read — I guess I would say you ought to be able to raise your voice in your own house without risk of arrest."

At Cambridge City Hall on Thursday, calls were coming in from across the country — half on Gates' side, half on the side of Cambridge Police. Mayor Denise Simmons says she would like to get Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley in the same room. She called Gates on Monday, the day news of his arrest broke, but she says she's yet to speak to the Cambridge Police sergeant.

The Gates story led newspapers and newscasts all over the country. But among one group of African-Americans gathered to discuss what was on their minds Thursday night, the story never even got a mention. At a forum with Gov. Patrick at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College, people such as Diane, from the South End, told the governor of their struggles.

"I was laid off my job about 10 months ago," Diane said. "I was a program coordinator in a homeless shelter, and my husband lost his job seven months ago. He's a union carpenter."

For two hours, people talked about getting laid off, about their spouses not being able to get work, about why there is no T station at Mattapan Square, about cuts in court-supervised treatment for drug addiction and the governor's proposal to cut the zoo's budget.

Not once did Gates' arrest come up.

WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti contributed to this report.

This program aired on July 23, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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