Gates v. the Guys with the Guns

PHOTO: Beretta 92F

By now, thanks in no small to President Obama’s remarks, you’ve probably heard of the dust-up between Cambridge police officer James Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates. The media jumped on the story because of the racial overtones, but there is another interesting angle not being covered: Respect for police authority.

When I first heard of the arrest I thought Gates should have known better than to challenge the dude with the gun. He was asking to be arrested.

The truth is that Crowley should have known better than to arrest a guy for merely screaming insults at him. By arresting Gates, Crowley made no one safer and ultimately wasted police resources.

The trouble is I still can’t escape my original line of thinking as much as I know it’s wrong. Police are supposed to protect and serve, not just be the scary guys with the guns. We shouldn’t be afraid of police unless we’ve committed a crime.

So, what does it say about our society that so many of us think the police, even if they’re abusing their power, deserve deference? Just maybe, haven’t we given police too much power and too much authority?

Flickr photo by Another Finn


  1. This whole thing has really been blown out of proportion due to Gates’ notoriety and close relationship with the Obamas.

    I haven’t read the files and delved into the whole mess like it seems everyone else has. My first guess was that Gates was tired and irritable, the cop was doing his job, and then it escalated into something ridiculous. That tends to happen if you talk back to a cop. What shouldn’t happen is getting arrested for it.

    If anyone watched the President’s press conference, the question about this matter was about to be cut for time but he let the lady ask it anyway. That’s fine. But when he got to the part where he said “I don’t know the facts of the case” then he probably should’ve stopped there and ended the conference rather than let his answer overshadow everything he had said in the previous hour.

    Healthcare is a complex and hard thing to talk about on the news. The President saying the word “stupid” in the context of police actions and race is a hot issue that they can run with and have. Not only does it feed the right wing hate machines but the (supposedly non-aligned) others love this stuff because it’s instant drama and gets people really riled up.

    As to the police – our police in the US have been given a pass for any type of actions they commit this decade because of the policies of the previous administration in turning them into semi-paramilitary gangs and making them think they are another branch of the armed forces. Now, many cops probably don’t feel this way, but they spend more time training how to taze people and on close-quarters combat than they do on diplomacy and de-escalation. It probably doesn’t help that most of their resources go to fighting drug dealers and traffickers or meth heads/cookers.

    I respect officers and loath them at the same time. I think the majority of citizens here would say the same. Those in minority communities probably have a greater dealing with them and a greater loathing with them and that anger is bound to come out.

  2. Chris

    Great comment Jordan.

    Obama should have probably have held his tongue, but I appreciate his honesty and I think his reaction was correct even if politically tone-deaf.

    (Here’s a conspiracy theory for ya: Perhaps Obama felt the press conference went badly, so he used the “stupidly” comment as a reset button on the whole thing.)

  3. Ian

    My first reaction when reading about the Gates arrest was “Gates is right, this is profiling.” After reading more about it, my current thought is “Both Gates and the cop had a contest to see who could be the biggest ass.” Gates should not have to produce identification to avoid arrest within his own home. He also shouldn’t verbally attack the cop for asking to do so. Gates should know his rights, and he should know how to properly handle himself in such a situation. The cop was just being a cop (“Respect my authority!”) and should’ve known when to walk away from a grumpy old man.

    The real racist is Gates’s neighbor who thought a black man working on his jammed front door was a criminal. You don’t notice who your neighbor is until he’s locked out of his house? Obama shouldn’t have made a public comment about it, at least not if he didn’t know what he was talking about.

  4. Chris

    A couple things… you’re definitely right that they got into a pissing contest. But I disagree that Gates shouldn’t have had to provide identification. The police were investigating a burglary, they were right to be suspicious of anyone in the home.

    Also, there are reports today that the neighbor didn’t specify the race of the person she thought was breaking in. We’ll know for sure when we hear the 911 recordings.

  5. Ian

    If Gates had just been nice and shown his ID, certainly the whole mess could’ve been avoided. Should he have had to? I would argue no. In the US, we aren’t supposed to have to walk around with our papers to avoid arrest. I shouldn’t have to prove I live in my house to avoid arrest. That’s insane. Gates did nothing wrong, he entered the house via the back door with his own key. Either way, its his house, and he can break in it if he wants. Would you argue that Gates, or anyone else, should have to notify the police beforehand that he would be working on his jammed front door to avoid any confusion?

    The cop was not investigating a burglary because no burglary had occurred. There is no mention that there was any evidence of a burglary to give the police officer probable cause. It was just a phone call by a nosy neighbor who didn’t have the decency to know who’s house she was “protecting”.

    Also, I fail to see how just because she never specifies the race of Gates that she isn’t racist. Clearly she saw the color of his skin and saw what he was doing, and she determined that what he was doing was breaking in. Its not like she has to say, “A black man is breaking in” to be racist. I doubt there would ever be evidence to prove her racist one way or the other, but I personally would bet on it. Gates is an older guy and he hardly looks threatening. He was supposedly sick at the time too. Why did her mind go to “criminal” instead of “older gentleman who might need help”?