Arrest of professor wrong in so many ways

August 14, 2009

I was deeply troubled by a number of facts that came to light after the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge last month after he was suspected to be breaking into his house. One of them is the low percentage of minority police supervisors in a city that is almost 12 percent African-American, according to statistics on According to an article in the Boston Globe, Cambridge has only four minority police supervisors.

Here are two red flags about the incident that I find very disturbing: 1) Most burglars try to break in through a back door or side window to avoid detection. 2) Most burglars tear the place apart and try to grab the valuables quickly and get out.

That neither of these scenarios was in evidence when Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrived on the scene indicates that he didn’t exactly have his thinking cap on. It is a mystery to me as to why the officer did not leave as soon as he ascertained that Gates was a Harvard professor, even if he hadn’t at that point handed over his license. Harvard professors probably do not go around breaking into people’s houses.

Crowley said in a radio interview that he thought there might be other people in the house. That is also very puzzling. He was talking to Gates on the same floor as the busted front door. Presumably, Gates could see the busted front door from where he was standing. If other people had broken the door, would he not have known about it?

More food for thought:

1) Even before this, trust between the police and the African-American community was very low. What are the chances now of a non-white person cooperating with the local police?

2) Gates repeatedly requested the officer’s identification, and Crowley did not comply, a violation of Massachusetts law.

3) Crowley may have entrapped Gates by suggesting that he would comply with the request for his identification if the professor would leave the house, where he would then be subject to arrest.

4) Crowley wrote in his report: “While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence…” The last item shows that he thought Gates did live in that house prior to arresting him. Why was he surprised that a black man would not be thrilled to have an officer question whether he lived in a Harvard-owned property near the square?

I hope this letter does not come across as anti-police. I have the highest respect for the men and women in blue who put their lives on the line for us every day. But, as President Obama said, I think this goes far beyond being a local issue. If Crowley did indeed perform this arrest “by the book,” then perhaps it is time for the police to get a new book.

Diane Simpson
Jamaica Plain