Obama Tries To Defuse Gates Controversy In an unexpected appearance at a White House media briefing Friday, the president said he had called the arresting officer in the case and the conversation confirmed his belief that the officer was a good man.
NPR logo Obama Tries To Defuse Gates Controversy

Obama Tries To Defuse Gates Controversy

President Obama on Friday sought to defuse the controversy surrounding the recent arrest of a prominent black professor, saying he talked to the police officer involved and believes him to be "a good man."

Obama said he believes that both men overreacted during an incident that has sparked allegations of racial profiling by Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley and resulted in a media frenzy. He invited both Crowley and Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. — the man Crowley arrested — to come to the White House.

"My impression of him (Crowley) is that he's an outstanding police officer and a good man and that was confirmed in the phone conversation," Obama said.

Making a surprise appearance at a White House media briefing, Obama admitted he was partially responsible for racheting up the controversy because of comments he made about the arrest during a Wednesday night news conference.

On Wednesday, in response to a question at the news conference, Obama said police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates on July 16 for disorderly conduct. The charges were subsequently dropped.

The president went on to say that blacks and Hispanics have a history of being stopped by police more frequently than whites, and that has contributed to resentment in minority communities.

On Friday, Obama said he should have chosen his words more carefully, and he believes both Gates and Crowley overreacted to the situation.

"I continue to believe based on what I have heard that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well," Obama said.

Earlier Friday, a multiracial group of police officers asked Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to apologize for critical comments. Patrick has said Gates' arrest was "every black man's nightmare."

Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said Obama's remarks were misdirected, and that race was not a factor in Gates' arrest.

Crowley and at least one other officer went to Gates' home July 16 in response to a call from a passer-by, who reported that two black men were breaking into a house. Gates, 58, had returned home from an overseas trip to find the door to his home jammed, so he and another man tried to force the front door open. Ultimately, Gates entered through the back.

When police arrived, Gates was inside. Initially, he refused to give the officer any identification, but he later complied. Still, the situation continued to escalate. Crowley said the professor refused to step outside, shouting accusations of racism and making derogatory remarks about Crowley's mother.

Gates has denied Crowley's account. He has characterized the 11-year police veteran as a racist and a "rogue cop." Gates is demanding an apology and has threatened to sue the Cambridge Police Department.

Crowley, 42, was largely silent about the incident until Obama's remarks Wednesday night.

"I support the president of the United States 110 percent," he told radio station WBZ-AM. "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."

But Crowley conceded that he understood the president was supporting a friend. "I guess a friend of mine would support my position, too," he said.

On Friday, Crowley's colleagues — black and white — turned out to support him. Fellow officers and friends said Crowley is a calm, reliable officer, who teaches recruits about avoiding racial profiling.

A black police officer who was at the Gates home when the professor was arrested said Crowley reacted appropriately.

Sgt. Leon Lashley says Gates was probably tired and surprised when Crowley demanded identification from him during the burglary investigation. Lashley said Gates' reaction was "a little bit stranger than it should have been."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.