Police Split On What To Learn From Gates Case Police departments are divided about what lessons can be drawn from the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. Is it about abusing authority? Misusing the disorderly conduct statute? Or do people need to learn how to respect authority?
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Police Split On What To Learn From Gates Case

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Police Split On What To Learn From Gates Case

Police Split On What To Learn From Gates Case

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From NPR News, It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This is the day of the much discussed White House backyard beer. President Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Police Sergeant James Crowley sat down to talk things over. This was after the officer, who is white, arrested the scholar, who is an African-American, for disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped. The president has said he hopes to use the incident as a teachable moment. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, many police departments want to do the same, but they're divided on what lessons to draw.

TOVIA SMITH: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has called what happened to Professor Gates every black man's nightmare. But it'd be fair to say the Cambridge controversy is every police department's nightmare too.

Mr. MARTIN FLASK (Director, Public safety, Cleveland): We've been all watching I think and, you know, it forces you to take a step back, look at what you're doing to ensure that what you're doing is appropriate.

SMITH: Martin Flask is director of public safety in Cleveland.

Mr. FLASK: I think as this information unfolds, I think we'll all learn something from it.

SMITH: But what this teachable moment teaches, of course, depends on who you ask, and there's as much disagreement among police as there is among the general public. The one thing police do agree on is that no one wants to make the next questionable arrest that makes headlines for weeks.

Mr. JOSEPH MCMILLAN (Head, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives): Folks want to take a look at their protocols, their procedures and make sure that it doesn't happen in their neck of the woods.

SMITH: Joseph McMillan heads the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. To him, the lesson from Cambridge is about abusing authority. And, he says, many chiefs are cautioning their officers to use more discretion when making arrests for disorderly conduct.

Mr. MCMILLAN: Where warranted, yes, but only use the force if necessary, only use the necessary enforcement actions to resolve the situation. And once the situation has been resolved, then walking away is not a bad thing.

SMITH: Others who agree with this point believe that many police won't be able to be objective on such a hot-button issue.

State Senator ERIC ADAMS (Democrat, New York; Former New York Police Officer): A number of police organizations believe nothing was done wrong.

SMITH: New York state senator and former New York City police officer Eric Adams is calling for a federal investigation into whether local police make unjustifiable or illegal arrests.

State Sen. ADAMS: We're going to have to compel them to examine what needs to be done, and to look at: Are we misusing the disorderly conduct statute to teach people a lesson who talk back to police officers?

SMITH: But to others, Professor Gates' arrest shows it's the public that needs educating as much as police. Dr. Joe Thomas, Jr. is police chief in Southfield, Michigan. Citizens need to know not to cross the line with police, he says, and it's not about protecting police egos, it's about public safety.

Dr. JOE THOMAS, JR. (Police Chief, Southfield, Michigan): There's a certain amount of respect. There's certain things you don't say to ministers. There's certain things you shouldn't say to your mom, your dad, or the clergy. You know, it's how you talk to people that got the responsibility and authority for controlling people, because if you disrespect them, you take away that authority and it hurts everybody.

SMITH: Thomas says he worries police will draw the wrong lessons from this case.

Dr. THOMAS, JR.: Sometime this type of publicity will make officers reluctant to do their job, and then we all suffer, or get them overcautious in doing their job, and they do meet a bad guy breaking into a house and try to be too nice and wind up getting killed.

SMITH: Joe Thomas says it would also be a mistake to use this case as a broad lesson on racial profiling. He says there are plenty of real cases of racial profiling to learn from. But, this is not one of them.

Dr. THOMAS, JR.: If we don't be extremely careful with this case, it could build a divide between people and the police, because this is not an overt case of racial profiling. I think that we might be killing a gnat with a sledgehammer.

SMITH: Because of the public firestorm, many communities don't even want to talk about what happened in Cambridge. Several police departments declined to comment for this report - as one put it, that's not our jurisdiction. But others say police who see the Cambridge incident as a lesson only for Cambridge are making a big mistake.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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