Police Groups Call For Obama Apology A group of police officers are standing by the sergeant who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and called on President Obama to apologize for his comments on the arrest. Obama said Wednesday that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" during the arrest.
NPR logo

Police Groups Call For Obama Apology

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106989039/106989019" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Police Groups Call For Obama Apology

Police Groups Call For Obama Apology

Police Groups Call For Obama Apology

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106989039/106989019" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A group of police officers are standing by the sergeant who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and called on President Obama to apologize for his comments on the arrest. Obama said Wednesday that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" during the arrest.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a surprise move, President Obama sought to quell the fear still swirling around the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Officers were called to investigate a suspected break in last week and arrested Gates at his own home on charges of disorderly conduct. Charges were dropped, but the debate about race, class and law enforcement continues from Cambridge, Massachusetts to the White House.

Here's NPR's Tovia Smith in Boston.

TOVIA SMITH: This whole incident has become something of a contest of who's more insulted, the esteemed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was deeply offended by police questioning him in his own home or the police officer, who was indignant at suggestions he did anything wrong, racist, rogue, as Gates put it. Or that he acted stupidly, as President Obama had stated.

Mr. STEVE KILLIAN (President, Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association): Cambridge police are not stupid. I think everybody that knows us knows that.

SMITH: Steve Killian is president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association.

Mr. KILLIAN: I think the president should make an apology to all law enforcement personnel throughout the entire country who took offense to this.

SMITH: Police officers say it was wrong for the president to even suggest a link between this case and racial profiling. And Sergeant Dennis O'Conner, head of another Cambridge police union, says it was inappropriate for President Obama or Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to comment at all, after acknowledging that Gates was a friend and that they didn't yet know all the facts.

Sergeant DENNIS O'CONNER (Chairman, Cambridge Superior Officers): Usually, when one hears those words, one would expect the words - the next words would be, so I cannot comment. Instead, both officials, both admitted friends of Professor Gates, proceeded to insult the handling of this case by the Cambridge Police Department.

SMITH: For days, the president had stood by his words saying he didn't understand what all the fuss was about. But in an extraordinary move today, President Obama came to address reporters in the White House briefing room.

(Soundbite of briefing room)

President BARACK OBAMA: Hey. Cameo appearance.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Pres. OBAMA: Sit down. Sit down. I need to help Gibbs out a little bit here.

Unidentified Man: You're the new press secretary?

Pres. OBAMA: I, you know, the - if you got to do a job, do it yourself.

SMITH: President Obama said he spoke by phone today with arresting officer Sergeant James Crowley. He called him an outstanding police officer and a good man. But the president stopped short of a direct apology.

Pres. OBAMA: Because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently.

SMITH: The president said he still believes that Sergeant Crowley overreacted in the incident, but that Professor Gates probably did too.

Pres. OBAMA: You know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues. And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.

SMITH: President Obama says the call ended with jokes about having both Gates and Crowley to the White House for beers. The president later called Professor Gates, and by the end of the day, both had been officially invited. For many, it was the kind of conciliatory tone that's been sorely missing. Earlier this week, when authorities dropped the charges against Gates, some hoped that would defuse the controversy. But as one police officer suggested today, maybe the case should've gone to trial, so the facts would come out and cooler heads might prevail. Then again, on a subject this heated, maybe not.

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 Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.