Video: Cops bristle at Obama's 'acting stupidly' remark

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/23/2009 6:15:08 PM ET 2009-07-23T22:15:08

The Cambridge police commissioner said Thursday that his department is "deeply pained" by President Barack Obama's statement that his officers "acted stupidly" when they arrested a renowned black scholar in his home.

Commissioner Robert Haas commended the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, as a decorated officer and said his actions were in no way motivated by racism.

Crowley, who is white, has been a lightning rod for criticism after arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his home last week. Police say Gates flew into a verbal rage when officers asked him for identification while investigating a report of a break-in at his home.

On Wednesday, the president said officers "acted stupidly" in arresting his friend. On Thursday, he softened his stance and said cooler heads should have prevailed.

Teaches racial profiling class
Crowley is a police academy expert on understanding racial profiling and has taught a class on the subject for five years at the Lowell Police Academy after being hand-picked for the job by former police Commissioner Ronny Watson, who is black, said Academy Director Thomas Fleming.

“I have nothing but the highest respect for him as a police officer. He is very professional and he is a good role model for the young recruits in the police academy,” Fleming told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The course, called “Racial Profiling,” teaches about different cultures that officers could encounter in their community “and how you don’t want to single people out because of their ethnic background or the culture they come from,” Fleming said.

Obama has said the Cambridge officers “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates last week when they responded to his house after a woman reported a suspected break-in.

Crowley, 42, has maintained he did nothing wrong and has refused to apologize, as Gates has demanded.

Crowley responded to Gates’ home near Harvard University last week to investigate a report of a burglary and demanded Gates show him identification. Police say Gates at first refused, flew into a rage and accused the officer of racism.

Gates was charged with disorderly conduct. The charge was dropped Tuesday.

'Any of us would be pretty angry'
Gates’ supporters maintain his arrest was a case of racial profiling. Officers were called to the home by a woman who said she saw “two black males with backpacks” trying to break in the front door. Gates has said he arrived home from an overseas trip and the door was jammed.

Obama was asked about the arrest of Gates, who is his friend, at the end of a nationally televised news conference on health care Wednesday night.

“I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry,” Obama said. “No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And No. 3 — what I think we know separate and apart from this incident — is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that’s just a fact.”

Image: Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley
Steven Senne  /  AP
Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley speaks with the media at his home in Natick, Mass., on Wednesday.
Obama did not fault the actions of Gates, who he said is a friend.

The White House said Thursday that Obama did not intend to call the officer "stupid."

Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama felt that when it was clear that Gates was not a burglary suspect last week, "at that point, cooler heads on all sides should have prevailed."

"Let me be clear, he was not calling the officer stupid," Gibbs told reporters. He said Obama felt that "at a certain point the situation got far out of hand."

In radio interviews Thursday morning, Crowley said he followed procedure.

“I support the president of the United States 110 percent. I think he was way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts as he himself stated before he made that comment,” Crowley told WBZ-AM. “I guess a friend of mine would support my position, too.”

Crowley did not immediately respond to messages left Thursday by the AP. The Cambridge police department scheduled a news conference for later Thursday.

'Outraged' by arrest
Gates has said he was “outraged” by the arrest. He said the white officer walked into his home without his permission and only arrested him as the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant’s name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.

“This isn’t about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America,” Gates said.

He said the incident made him realize how vulnerable poor people and minorities are “to capricious forces like a rogue policeman, and this man clearly was a rogue policeman.”

The president said federal officials need to continue working with local law enforcement “to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias.”

Fellow officers, black and white, say Crowley is well-liked and respected on the force. Crowley was a campus police officer at Brandeis University in July 1993 when he administered CPR trying to save the life of former Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis. Lewis, who was black, collapsed and died during an off-season workout.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who is black, said he was troubled and upset over the incident. Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons, who also is black, has said she spoke with Gates and apologized on behalf of the city, and a statement from the city called the July 16 incident “regrettable and unfortunate.”

The mayor refused Thursday to comment on the president’s remarks.

Police supporters charge that Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was responsible for his own arrest by overreacting.

Black students and professors at Harvard have complained for years about racial profiling by Cambridge and campus police. Harvard commissioned an independent committee last year to examine the university’s race relations after campus police confronted a young black man who was using tools to remove a bike lock. The man worked at Harvard and owned the bike.

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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