911 Tapes Released, Race Not Mentioned

Police in Cambridge, Mass., have released the 911 tapes and radio dispatches that led officers to the home of Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Harvard scholar's arrest on a disorderly conduct charge sparked a national debate about racial profiling.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.


And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Police tapes connected to Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Juniors arrest have raised more questions about the incident. Authorities in Cambridge, Massachusetts released the tapes yesterday hoping to reduce suspicion about police behavior. That was the hope. NPRs Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: The police tapes were a bust to anyone hoping theyd settle once and for all whether Professor Gates really was disorderly or whether the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, really did overreact to what started as a low-key call to 911 about two guys maybe forcing their way into a house.

Ms. LUCIA WHALEN: I don't know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key, but I did notice that they kind of used their shoulder to try to barge in.

SMITH: Contrary to many reports, the caller Lucia Whalen actually didn't mention race at all until she was asked.

Unidentified Man: Are they white, black or Hispanic?

Ms. WHALEN: Well, there were two larger men. One looked kind of Hispanic, but Im not really sure, and the other one entered and I didn't see what he looked like at all.

SMITH: When police broadcast a possible burglary in progress they still don't mention a black man. Sergeant Crowley says the caller told him at the house the men were black, but she denies it. About a minute after he gets there Crowley reports trouble brewing.

Sergeant JAMES CROWLEY (Cambridge Police Department): (Unintelligible) gentleman says he resides here (unintelligible) uncooperative. But keep the cars coming.

SMITH: A moment later you can hear a loud voice behind Sergeant Crowley, but its unclear if its Gates.

Sergeant CROWLEY: I have an ID of a Henry Louis Gates.

SMITH: Crowley says Gates was angrily accusing him of racism from the moment he arrived. Gates disputes that account and the tapes don't really help.

Dr. DELORES JONES BROWN (Director, Center on Race, Crime and Justice): We don't get very far, because we hear what we want to and we don't hear what we don't want to. And we simply make up the rest.

SMITH: Delores Jones Brown is director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. To her the tapes suggest the police overreacted. Theres no evidence of disorderly conduct, she says, and she questions why police didn't just leave the house after checking Gates ID and why the 911 operator asked about race at all.

Ms. BROWN: It does, in fact, alert me to the possibility that the Cambridge police have an issue with racial ethnic identity.

SMITH: But to others the tapes only show those accusations are unfounded.

Reverend EUGENE RIVERS (Co-director, National Ten Point Leadership Foundation): Racial profiling is a problem. But racial profiling is not what happened in the case of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

SMITH: Reverend Eugene Rivers, whos protested racial profiling in the past, says in this case the tapes prove that rhetoric got ahead of reality.

Reverend RIVERS: That is too loaded an accusation to be thrown around like rice at a wedding. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

SMITH: Rivers says he worries about the damage done by Gates Gate, as some have called it. It may be that the new focus on the issue and President Obamas meeting with both sides this week can help ease racial tensions, but Rivers says they will begin a few steps back from where we were two weeks ago.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Police Release Recordings Of Gates Confrontation

Henry Louis Gates speaks on CNN i

Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2 days after his arrest. Frank Franklin II/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Franklin II/AP
Henry Louis Gates speaks on CNN

Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2 days after his arrest.

Frank Franklin II/AP

The woman who called 911 to report a possible burglary at the home of Harvard professor Louis Gates Jr. said she saw two men trying to force their way into his Cambridge, Mass., house, but she didn't initially mention their race and told the dispatcher she was uncertain when asked.

Lucia Whalen called the police July 16 to report that she saw two men using their shoulders to "barge in" a house. During the call, Whalen said she wasn't sure whether the men lived there and were having a hard time getting inside or if they were breaking in.

"They kind of broke the screen door, and they kind of barged in," she said in the call to the Cambridge Police Department, which released the tapes Monday amid public debate over whether the case involved racial profiling. "They were pushing the door in, like, the screen part of the front door was kind of, like, cut."

Gates, who is black, had returned home from an overseas trip to find the front door to his home jammed, so he and another man tried to force open the door. Ultimately, Gates entered through the back.

Police arrived at the house and asked for Gates' identification. The professor was arrested during the incident and charged with disorderly conduct, but the charges were later dropped.

Gates, 58, has accused the responding officer of racism and racial profiling.

In releasing the tapes, Cambridge police Commissioner Robert C. Haas said Monday it was up to the public to draw its own conclusions. Haas also released copies of taped radio transmissions between officers at the scene and the police dispatcher.

On the tape, Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, sounded calm as he told the dispatcher "I'm up with a gentleman who says he resides here, but he was uncooperative, but, ugh, keep the cars coming."

Gates went on to tell the dispatcher, "I'm giving you the resident as Henry Louis Gates Jr."

Whalen, who works nearby, called the police because she was aware of recent burglaries in the area, according to a statement issued Sunday by attorney Wendy Murphy. Murphy said Whalen wanted to issue a statement to correct "misinformation" that she reported two black men appeared to be breaking into a home in the mostly white neighborhood.

"Are they white, black or Hispanic?" the dispatcher asked Whalen during the call reporting a possible burglary in progress.

"Well, there were two larger men. One looked kind of Hispanic, but I'm not really sure. And the other one entered and I didn't see what he looked like at all," Whalen responded, adding that she saw the men from a distance.

Gates' supporters called his arrest an outrageous act of racial profiling. Crowley's supporters say Gates was arrested because he was belligerent and that race was not a factor.

Interest in the case intensified when President Obama said at a White House news conference last week that Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates. He later tried to quell the uproar about his comments and invited both Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer, a meeting that could happen this week, according to the White House.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.