Sunday, July 26, 2009

Obama was right - Cambridge Police did act "Stupidly"

I'm sure you know about the arrest of the Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates, in his own house!

After the initial strong reactions, including one from President Obama, people by and large seem to have settled down to accepting the incident as an unfortunate one, with no one to blame but the situation itself. And history - of race in America. And also perceptions - of black and white about each other.

Here's an AP article that does a fairly good job of analyzing the incident.

Still, as a brown guy from India who is neither white nor black, and having lived in the US for more than 18 years, I have no hesitation in agreeing with the initial reaction of President Obama.

The issue is pretty simple, really.

A police officer gets a call about a possible break-in, and while investigating, makes a few errors in judgment, overreacting and aggravating the situation. He should have given Mr. Gates the benefit of doubt, while continuing to verify his identity and his side of the story. Instead, his actions clearly show that he adopted a more suspicious and aggressive attitude. The government can't just walk into someone's home and accuse them of being a burglar. At least not in America.

After the first few minutes of fear and doubt, the officer clearly had to know that he was dealing with a false alarm; that's when he should have apologized and excused himself.


Was that too much to ask in this situation?

Well, let me tell you another story from my personal experience and you can decide for yourself.

In April 2002, just about 6 months after the 9/11 attacks, my wife and I were moving into our new apt. in Durham, NC, carrying packing boxes from a U-haul truck parked in front of our apt. A neighbor called the cops reporting "suspicious activity". When the cops showed up, I was shocked and deeply offended, but stood my ground, cooperated with the investigating officer- reluctantly, and then challenged his judgment, demanded to know the identity of neighbor who made the call, demanded the officer's ID (and noted it down), and promised to report him to his superiors as well as the media.

The officer complied with all my requests politely (except for revealing the identity of the caller) just as I complied with his. Both of us realized pretty quickly that we had been played (inadvertently or not) by a hypersensitive potentially racist neighbor. The situation didn't get out of hand even though all the elements of the Gates situation - and then some - existed in my case (I even had a huge "terrorist" beard). The officer apologized for the inconvenience caused to me before leaving.

Even as the conversation and confrontation was nearing the end, I began to feel grateful that I was in the USA, and appreciative of the way the officer handled the situation with me. I could not fault him for anything that he said or did. I could only get upset at the madness that was prevailing in the country in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks- and the stupid neighbor who didn't pause to think before calling the cops on a neighbor moving into their own home.

Mr. Gates incident could and should have been handled at least as well as my incident was.

In this country, when you feel threatened by someone in your home, you have the right to shoot to kill to protect yourself, let alone shouting angrily at them. A police officer who finds himself in that situation should do better than to react to and provoke a justifiable scared, hurt and offended resident.

In both the cases, the police officer had the responsibility to not aggravate the matter any more than necessary while investigating, and to apologize for the inconvenience, at the end.

Fortunately for me, in my case, the officer maintained a cool head. And consequently the situation played itself out. And I never made that call to the officer's superior or anyone in media (although I kept his card with me for several months, just in case he returned with yet another crank call).

Unfortunately for Mr. Gates, President Obama, and all of us upset with what happened at Harvard, office Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge police overreacted even after he realized there was no break-in. To say he acted "stupidly" is being generous.

But what's worse than stupid is Crowley's insistence that he didn't do anything wrong and thereby refusing to defuse a situation that has been blown way out of proportion by his mishandling of the situation. It's time for him to update his "racial profiling" course material with a chapter on "handling falsely accused residents in their homes".

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