Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Followup on Gates and the Cops

Late last week, I posted my thoughts about the Gates Arrest based on the content of the police report.

Since then, we have heard the actual content of the 911 call (or, at least, significant parts that the media consider relevant, but the transcript is available from a local paper) and it raises new questions about the approach taken by the Cambridge police, both the arresting officer and the dispatcher. Indeed, when you read the transcript, it sounds like the dispatcher was doing some profiling when asking "And what do the suitcases have to do with anything?". Not even listening, it would seem, as that got turned into "backpacks" by the time the cop reported it back to us.

So, what do I think now?

First, just because the caller says she was careful about giving the race of the two men does not mean race played no role in the call since she was not the initial witness. It was another woman who had been watching what took place. However, it is clear from the call that she never even saw one of the men - probably Gates, unless she thought Prof. Gates looked Hispanic - so his race was never an issue for her. Certainly it answers my question about what she "said", because she never said what the arresting officer claimed she told him.

The important thing now is that her statements make it very clear that the story in the police report, that she told the cop that she "observed what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the porch", was, shall we say, quite wide of the truth. She doesn't have to answer for that, but it was fun to read how the Cambridge Police Commissioner acknowledged that the police report contains a reference to race, but said the report is merely a summary of events. Wow, can you imagine a defense attorney using that to impeach the information in any report filed by that officer in the future?

But second, why was the elderly neighbor woman concerned? That was part of my earlier question, as she was the original witness, and it remains unanswered. Was she concerned because she saw dark skinned men pushing on the door? Would she have been concerned if it had been a 60 year old white man doing it with the assistance of a white Limo driver?

However, there is no question in my mind that I would want one of my neighbors to call the police if they saw something like that happening, but I think my actual neighbors (including ones who walk this area regularly) know what I look like! Similarly, I think they know that a black family lives next door and would never question a black person going into that house. (That might make my neighbors less well protected from black-on-black crime, just as it makes folks in the wealthy all-white suburbs less protected against their neighbor's kids robbing them.)

Third, there are now serious questions about the part of the police report related to the cause for the arrest. We have heard the transmissions from inside the house, and there was no indication at all that Prof. Gates was yelling loudly enough to interfere with communication. Quite the opposite. The premise given to get him out of the house was just that, a premise, based on what the police department released about the call.

Finally, the caller was pretty clear about the most likely possibility that the men lived in the house (said so more than once) and were just forcing a stuck door and that she was just calling to be on the safe side. The dispatcher made the suitcases sound ominous rather than an indication of a likely non-emergency situation, as intended by the caller.

That is something for everyone to remember: the officer responding to a request will likely be totally unaware of what was said to the 911 operator, either because it got filtered by the operator or was only partially heard while finding the way to the address in question. Assume the cop has incomplete or inaccurate information, and explain all details as if it was the first time.

So, to give a one-line answer to the question about whether an apology is in order, I think the cop owes her and the rest of us an apology.

Note added:
Forgot to include a link to this interesting analysis, which matches my view that this was about Power more than race, although I still think he was arrested for being "uppity" based on the officer's own description of his shock at not being treated as the Master and his stated concern about being shown up in front of his fellow officers.

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