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Henry Louis Gates Jr., Researcher of Racial Profiling, Arrested.

NPR Article on Gates Arrest

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard professor who studies racial profiling, was arrested for “loud and tumultuous” conduct after officers responded to his residence to investigate a possible “B&E” (breaking and entering). Supposedly a white female passerby saw gates and his African American driver trying to force open the front door. Gates had just returned from a trip to China to find his door swelled shut.

A Cambridge PD officer arrived to investigate. At this point the stories that the PD and Gates offer begin to differ. Gates claims tat he was arrested for no reason and that the officers were there because of racial profiling. The PD maintains that they had to investigate a crime and that Gates did not allow an officer into the house to investigate. Further the PD says that Gates  did not provide a state issued ID, only a Harvard University ID. While the officer was trying to obtain ID, Gates allegedly began asking for the officer’s badge and name. After the officer entered the house and obtained proper ID he threatened the officer, “You don’t know who your messing with.” Gates followed the officer outside and continued to berate him. At that point the officer arrested Gates for a public disorder crime (read the Gates Arrest Report).

Is this racial profiling as nearly everyone claims it to be? Racial profiling means that an officer stops, detains, or arrests a person solely on the basis of their race. Or is this a case of racial discrimination? That is, was Gates singled out for disparate treatment by the Cambridge Police, or more specifically Sgt. Crowely? Would  a white professor have been treated the same way?

Based on my professional experience I cannot say that I find the police report satisfactory. In CA, anyway, there would be little or no precedent to make an arrest. I would also hope that an arrest report dealing with “sensitive” person would have more detail. That the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges does not help. It does not mean that Sgt. did not have probable cause for an arrest, but it does imply that the case could not have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It also looks really bad from a public relations point of view.

But is this profiling or discrimination? I don’t think that can be adjudicated from the report or Professor Gate’s version of the events. From a working deputies point of view I can agree with many aspects of how Sgt. Crowely handled the situation. He has the right to detain a person for a reasonable amount of time to investigate a possible crime in progress. A person coming to the door and saying they are a resident is not sufficient to satisfy in most officers minds that no crime is occurring. Asking  for Government issued ID that proves someone is a resident is a common investigative technique. Someone refusing to give ID while legally detained is a real problem. It is generally problem to start arguing with an officer and deman

For example, last night (7/21/09) I responded to a noise complaint of a party with underage drinking.  I walk around the house, establish that there is unreasonably loud noise and I can smell the odor of alcohol coming from the residence. I look through the window and see people who look to be under 21. I knock on the door and a person under 21 answers the door. I ask to come inside after explaining why I am there. I am denied. I request identification from which ever minor lives at the house. The woman who answered the door first tells me “get out of my house” and then refuses to give me identification.

What to do? I explain again that I have to conduct an investigation and determine whether or not minor’s are being furnished with alcohol. I also need to make sure the noise is lowered. I explain that I have a right and an obligation to be in the house. The 19 year old proclaims, “My dad is a lawyer and you should leave.”  I also explain the consequences for impeding the investigation and finally gain the compliance of the white rich 19 year old daughter of a lawyer.

The point is this, I did whatever I could to de-escalate the situation and not make an arrest. My job was to stop the noise and ensure not alcohol was being furnished to minors. If I can get out without an arrest, I have done my job. Could it have escalated to an arrest, absolutely. But I give this example so that others will see some of the reasoning behind why the Gates incident could escalate to an arrest without original crime being founded. But this still doesn’t answer the question of whether Gates was discriminated against. I also don’t think that the claim that Gate’s arrest is prima facie evidence for “profiling.” That is not a logical argument (P.1 Gates is a black man. P.2 Gates is a well respected black man. P.3 Gates was arrested. P.4 Sometimes black men are arrested because of their skin color. C.1 Therefore Gates was arrested as a result of racial profiling.)

Are there other explanations for what happened other than racial profiling? Yes. Based on what we know, the officer did not profile. He had a witness who had facts about a specific suspect. The officer did his job and investigated. However, does that mean that the witness, a white woman, was not influenced by race? Social psycholoical research shows that people are influenced by unconscious biases regarding race. Likely the white witness was hyper-vigilant in her assesment of Gate’s trying to get into the house because of deeply embedded stereotypes about black men being criminals. This is very likely the case, but that is not the same a profiling by police.

It is also equally possible that Gates, tired from  a trip back from China, was exhausted and irratable and escalated the situation. He may have also been frustrated, as a black man who has dealt with a legacy of racism, that a white police officer was trying to enter HIS home. It is also possible that the Officer escalated the situation by not receiving the deference he expects from a upper middle class black man. You ask me and this can equally well be explained as being about masculinity. Could this not have been any more about two men in a pissing contest than it was a story of racial profiling? Gates committed the crime of “contempt of cop” and was arrested. The role of deference in relations between men, especially in police-citizen encounters, has been very well described by sociologists and criminologists. When either party feels disrespected, tensions rise and arrests are more likely.


8 thoughts on “Henry Louis Gates Jr., Researcher of Racial Profiling, Arrested.

  1. Le Samourai says:

    The problem with your analysis here is that after Gates showed his ‘Government ID’ the police officer continued to escalate the situation. After Gates showed his ID, the police officer should have just moved on. Instead the officer, ego bruised, decided to take things further for no other reason than his own annoyance.

    P.S. Gates is NOT a researcher of racial profiling.


  2. I’m actually planning on doing another edition of “In the News” tomorrow afternoon, and the Gates affair will be a big part of it. A couple of thought for right now: although I agree with you “masculine pissing match” hypothesis, we should also remember that one of the ways race could have worked here is through how “upset” Gates seemed (which would them provoke a similar kind of escalating piss fest of the type you describe) to a white cop. Peter Moskos actually has a couple of nice posts about this as well…


  3. socdeputy says:

    Absolutely. It is not only likely that Gates was upset that an officer was at his house questioning him about his living there, which is always touchy to do when an officer is dealing with middle class and upper class citizens, but was likley also excaerbated by the fact that the officer was white. It may be, and this is speculative, that Gates had his own negative expectations about white police officers. The masculine pissing match gives more a “form” to the conflict.


  4. Le Samourai says:

    Interesting article. From a legal perspective, the cop was most definitely in the wrong. I’m n0t sure if writing this incident off as a “masculine pissing match” is fruitful or accurate. One could argue that most ‘racist’ encounters are pissing matches of one kind or another – that doesn’t make them any less racist.


    • socdeputy says:

      I am not sure that I am writing this caper off as a “masculine pissing contest.” Rather, I am suggesting that there are alternate explanations other than racial animus on the part of Sgt. Crowley that can also explain what occured. Nor would I go so far as to say that all racist encounters are driven by pissing matches. Not all issues of racial encounters are driven by the same issues of respect. To conflate the logic of masculinity with that of racial domination (which is not to say the two don’t frequently intertwine) is to reduce the explanatory power or either.

      I am also no expert on Massachusetts law and can only say that based on the public disorder law as I have seen it explained, there may have been probable cause for the arrest. The DA’s office did not say the are dismissing the charges because of a wrongful arrest. The fact is, many of my cases and that of other officers are dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with the probable cause for the arrest. In CA Gates could have been arrested for 148(a)(1)PC, delaying or obstructing a peace officer. That said, even if probable cause existed, it still would have been a weak arrest and I would not have made it.


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