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Race Was Minor Factor in Skip Gates Arrest, Review Committee Says

By Naveen N. Srivatsa, Crimson Staff Writer

Despite widespread speculation concerning the role of race in the July 2009 arrest of Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., members of the Cambridge Review Committee insist that racial bias deserved no more attention than brief mentions in the final report analyzing the arrest, arguing that the issue overshadowed more meaningful concerns precipitating from the incident.

Tucked away in the middle of the 33rd page of the report, which was released last Wednesday, are eight words that pertain to the Cambridge Police Department’s review of recent disorderly conduct arrests. As almost an afterthought, the report states that the CPD “also subjected its statistical breakdowns to racial analysis.”

And the last page of the 60-page document, “Appendix E,” details simulations conducted to determine if Cambridge police officers were more likely to shoot a suspect based both on his race and on the stress level of the officer. The study found that members of the CPD, regardless of their stress level, were no more prone to shoot a black suspect.

These two mentions are hardly an extensive discussion of the role of race in policing, an issue that defined much of the coverage of Sergeant James Crowley’s arrest of Gates. After Gates was arrested at his home and charged with disorderly conduct, prominent officials criticized the incident. E. Denise Simmons, then-mayor of Cambridge, said that the event demonstrated a need to address issues of race more candidly. Mass. Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 called it “every black man’s nightmare.” In an answer to a question about Gates’ arrest, President Barack Obama said that African Americans and Hispanics continue to face a disproportionate level of police scrutiny.

But in moving away from the explicit issue of race, the committee’s report chooses to focus on two broad themes: the differing perspectives that members of a diverse population employ to interpret confrontations with the police, and the ways police officers can exercise discretion, de-escalate conflicts, and better interact with the community. Both of these flirt with the notion of racial profiling, but neither directly confronts it—and purposefully so.

“I guess what one needs to be careful of was what our mission really was,” said committee member John J. Kosko. “And it was not to respond to the news cycle’s interpretations of what happened but, to the extent possible, look at everything objectively rather than with a predisposition to whether or not this was a racial profiling issue.”

Committee member Marian J. Darlington-Hope said she knew of some who were “disappointed” by the report’s brevity in addressing racial prejudice, but Aaron D. Miller, another member of the committee, said that the issues present in Gates’ arrest were too multifaceted to be viewed from that single lens.

“Some people would argue it’s all race, very simple. Others would argue that it was driven by an absence of respect, that color was not the determinative aspect that drove everyone’s behavior,” Miller said. “A lot of times in life, there are simple explanations. This was a lot more complex than just race, and race will be the way I think people will look at this report—and I think that’s limited.”

Committee members said that the group certainly discussed race during its meetings. The committee reviewed the CPD’s in-house analysis of its disorderly conduct arrests—which found arrest rates to be independent of the race of the officer and the offender—and even conducted personal interviews with Gates and Crowley.

Miller said that after interviewing Crowley, he thought it was unlikely that he was influenced by race, finding him “incredibly straightforward” and “influenced by family values.”

The committee’s conclusion was aptly captured by Chuck Wexler, chairman of the committee and executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, who said at Wednesday’s press conference, “I think race is a part of it, but I don’t think it was the primary issue.”

And once racial prejudice was put aside, Darlington-Hope said it was able to explore issues of communication and conflict resolution rather than engage in a prolonged and potentially unfruitful discussion of prejudice.

“I’m not sure that if we had spent more time on it that anything new would have been found out than what has been said about race and race in the police,” she said, later adding, “For us to have gone in that way would have given it more license than it deserved.”

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard Law School professor who served as Gates’ lawyer, found that rationale to be unsatisfying.

“I think if you think there’s an area worth pursuing, then that’s what you do,” he said in an interview Sunday morning, about the issue of race.

In a book published in June titled “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America”, Ogletree writes that Gates’ arrest “provided a monumental opportunity for examining the issues of race and class in the criminal justice system.”

Ogletree criticized the report’s suggestion that Gates and Crowley were on equal standing. When a police officer is investigating the suspect of a crime, Ogletree said that the officer, in a stronger position of power, bears a greater responsibility for the outcome of the situation. Nevertheless, he refused to describe the scant treatment of profiling as a flaw, saying that the committee wanted to release a report quickly and was able to make recommendations that he called “exceptional.”

“I consider it an omission that was a result of time and focus on other aspects,” Ogletree said. “But even though race is not mentioned, the idea of looking at disorderly conduct and more involvement with the community is tiptoeing around the issue.”

Also touching upon race was Miller’s reading of the arrest, which characterizes the clash between Gates and Crowley as one between two identities.

Under his interpretation, Crowley felt a threat to his identity as a police officer, and Gates sensed a threat to his identity as a prominent African-American scholar. These fundamental, internal conflicts led to what the report called an “avoidable” arrest, and Miller said that officers can avoid situations like these through stronger conflict de-escalation training, a recommendation that was proposed by the report.

Considering alternatives to arrest is a worthwhile endeavor, especially when policing a heterogeneous population, CPD Commissioner Robert C. Haas said Wednesday.

“The national conversation that followed the arrest of Professor Gates underscored my belief that the current model of policing did not adequately address the reality of interacting with highly diverse communities,” he said.

But the quest to more effectively interact with the community is not one that is over yet, Ogletree said.

“This is not over,” he said. “I think this is the first chapter in a multi-chapter dialogue about police and community relations.”

—Xi Yu contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Naveen N. Srivatsa can be reached at srivatsa@fas.harvard.edu.

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