ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Disorderly conduct charges were dropped today against Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates, who is black and a noted scholar of African-American history, was arrested last week after somebody mistook him for a burglar outside his own home. Police in Cambridge, Massachusetts now are calling the arrest unfortunate. Gates and his allies are calling it racism.
NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Gates was arrested after he returned from a trip to China and found his front door was swelled shut. He called his driver over to help him. And someone saw them forcing open the door of this nice house near Harvard Square and called the police. By the time a police sergeant showed up, Professor Gates was already inside.
Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Harvard Law School): And he walked to the screen door and before he could say anything, the officer said, step outside, please.
ARNOLD: Fellow Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree is Professor Gates' lawyer.
Prof. OGLETREE: He stopped and said, what? He said, step outside, please. He said, oh, this is my house. I live here. This door was jammed. And he said, well, will you step outside? He said, well, I'm not going to step outside. You didn't tell me who you are. And the officer said, well, then do you have some identification?
ARNOLD: This is where the two accounts, the police sergeant's and Gates' start to differ. The police report says that Gates at first refused to provide identification and asked if the officer was there because he was, quote, "a black man in America." Gates' lawyer, though, says Gates did not refuse to get his ID. He went inside and showed the sergeant his Harvard ID and his driver's license.
Prof. OGLETREE: With his photograph and address on it. And it was clear that the officer then understood what happened. The officer nevertheless said, well, we're investigating a break-in that's in progress. He says, this is my house. I live here. You can ask anybody. Why are you doing this to me? Is it because I'm a black man and you're a white police officer?
ARNOLD: The sergeant in the police report says Gates got very upset, was yelling over his words. He told Gates if he wanted to talk more, he was heading outside. He says Gates' reply was, quote, "I'll speak to your mama outside." The report says that Professor Gates did follow the sergeant outside and made enough of a disturbance that people were gathering around on the street. His lawyer says Gates did not yell or insult the officer. But the 58-year-old Gates was handcuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct.
Prof. OGLETREE: And he hobbled down the stairs and they placed him in the rear of a police cruiser. His secretary was at the window crying and trying to see what was going on.
ARNOLD: As word spread, fellow African-American professors at Harvard accused the police of racism, blogs and local TV shows buzzed with the story.
Unidentified Woman: Some folks in Gates' Harvard Square neighborhood say they are in shock over what happened. It's still Gates' word versus Cambridge police and so far…
ARNOLD: It certainly didn't look good: arresting a world-renowned African-American scholar in front of his own house after somebody mistakenly took him for a burglar. Today, the city of Cambridge dismissed the charges. Kelly Downes is a spokeswoman for the police department.
Ms. KELLY DOWNES (Spokeswoman, Cambridge Police Department): This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department. And all parties do agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances.
ARNOLD: Downes insisted that race was not a factor in the arrest and she said it was justified, though some experts raise their eyebrows at that. Dennis Kenney is a former police officer and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Professor DENNIS KENNEY (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): In this case, the charges have been dropped. It, you know, suggests that there was no real backing for the arrest, which, in fact, now exposes the department and perhaps the officer to some civil risk, as well.
ARNOLD: Kenney says these disorderly conduct cases are jokingly referred to by police as, quote, "contempt of cop charges," meaning if the person arrested insulted the officer, but often didn't really break the law.
Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.
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