Cambridge professor arrested by police while trying to break into his own home, officials, civic leaders and the public’s reaction has been mixed upon hearing this headline; some criticize the President for speaking out on this issue saying the Cambridge police acted stupidly and a follow up comment saying that it was pretty stupid to arrest a man trying to get into his own home, saying Obama spoke without knowing the facts. Others have now seen fit to turn this back on the professor himself Henry Louis Gates, citing his erratic behavior as the reason cops behaved the way they did and causing his subsequent arrest, not race as Mr. Gates reportedly claims. As the story unfolds, the white officer spoke out about how irate, uncooperative and belligerent Mr. Gates was, eventually resorting to taunts about the officers mother. Police were called to what was later determined to be Mr. Gates’ residence on a suspected break in report called in by a neighbor who apparently saw two black men attempting to break into a home; police arrive to find Mr. Gates trying to get into the home. It is here the details become sketchy; the officer claims Mr. Gate initially refused to show them some ID. There were reports that even once professor Gates produced his college ID that officers still refused to believe he lived there, to officers at some point being in his living room, then hauling him off to jail in handcuffs on charges of disorderly conduct where he was held then released and the charges dropped.

What is disturbing about this story is that the professor was able to produce his college ID; ID that no doubt has a photo now if the police had followed procedure they would have ran his name through their system, something you can do via either the patrol car with onboard equipment or by calling dispatch and having them run the name,like you would in an ordinary traffic stop for example; that input of a name will bring up a last known address which a reasonable assumption would say was home in question. Even if the man refused to give ID, when he says my name is Henry Louis Gates and I live here that should have given cops a clue something different was going on, prompted them to run the name through their system. When it comes up the current address of where they are standing (probably a DMV photo to boot) and he looks like the person in the photo you say sorry for the inconvenience sir and leave, if he becomes irate you leave him be ranting on his porch in the early a.m. You do not arrest the man, you do not refuse to give your name and badge number when asked and told it is for complain purposes, you do not allow it to escalate to the point where insults are hurled back and forth.

This has subsequently gone beyond a Harvard educated professor and a police officer to encompass race relations in America, people pointing to it as a case of racial profiling, while others point out that this officer teaches a class on racial profiling and was instrumental in giving CPR to a famous black basket ball player when he had a heart attack, to saying that President Obama should not have spoken out on the issue, to claiming that his backing off of the issue had to do with the discovery that there were tapes of the exchange. In sorting out these issues, first teaching such a class does not mean you are not a racist, not that it has come close to being made clear that this officer is; second the idea that President Obama shouldn’t speak out as both a black man and the leader of the free world is ludicrous, particularly when asked his opinion. Those admonishing both Mr. Gates and the President say that Obama picked the wrong officer to slur, but the President did not make it about race he made it about smart and stupid pointing out the obvious that it doesn’t make sense to arrest a man trying to get into his own home. Let us also remember it is Mr. Gates who is demanding the release of the alleged tapes, not the officer according to news reports. The astounding part of the public’s choice to turn on the professor is their surprise this man was insulted to be asked for ID on his own front porch or to find that one of his neighbors was either so stupid or paranoid as not to recognize a fellow neighbor, who likely had lived there for a number of years, and being black one can see why he would think race was somehow involved I don’t know how he couldn’t. And about his erratic behavior, anyone would lose their temper after being treated that way on top of being exhausted from an out of country trip, on top of a malfunctioning front door, on top of thinking about ok now that my door is broken how do I keep my things safe for the night, and which handy man/locksmith do I call and any work related things he had to do the next day, not to mention the cops in his living room not grasping the concept of I live here and probably trying to work out in his head which of his neighbors decided to call the cops.

But this is so much bigger than black or white really, regardless of what the colors involved here, the police messed up in falling to follow basic, simple procedures to ascertain the truthfulness of the mans statements; this is a story of how incompetence breeds these kinds of problems. Unfortunately it is not the first time police mistakes have had a negative impact on the public; there was the pregnant African American woman featured on a talk show after having been pulled over by police and forced to lay face down on the shoulder of a busy highway, with her young children in the car, while her vehicle was searched because it looked like one used by a suspected criminal. There was the highly publicized case in which officers were cleared of wrong doing when a young black man came out of his wedding reception or bachelor party and was met with a hail of gunfire when he attempted to get into his black SUV; the young mans body was riddled with a double digit number of bullets. Why, because his car looked like one of a drug dealer and gangbanger the police were searching for. Another egregious case of police action is illustrated when a woman and her husband are pulled over and she is yanked out of the car in the midst of breast feeding her child, violently searched on the shoulder of the highway, not allowed to cover herself, all in front of her husband and other children, then hauled off to the police station in handcuffs. Once at the police station, they submit the poor woman to a strip search and they start asking things like where’s your mole, where’s your tattoos, finally realizing she isn’t the person they are looking for. Yet instead of sending her home with their profound apologies, she is forced to sit in a jail cell over the weekend because officers have no idea what to do next, they have no paperwork and procedure to process this mistake and must wait until the next business day for the person needed to be available to unravel the mess. The problem being there is no mechanism for police to deal with the innocent, no procedure, no forms and no way to handle a mistake in an orderly dignified fashion.

Returning to Mr. Gates, when the tapes are released to the public it only fuels the thinking that this might have been about race as we hear the 911-caller state she is unclear as to what is going on but mentions seeing suitcases and brings up the possibility that the people could live there. The officer’s behavior becomes even more questionable when hearing the woman never mention a black person rather identifying one as maybe Hispanic and making it clear she did not see the other. It then begs the question why it took the officer so long to come to the conclusion that Mr. Gates lived there, perhaps because he is a black man in a nice house and stereotypically that not supposed to happen. A red flag of suspicion again goes up as conflicting information comes out about the police report and whether or not the officer states that the 911 call included a description that identifies the people as two black men. It may not be a case of racial profiling however, police behavior certainly seems racially motivated, and not in terms of adjusting your approach and demeanor to accommodate things like age and culture but in holding on to stereotypes about black people. Further, if Mr. Gates was guilty of disorderly conduct why were the charges dropped; whether it is a white or black issue or not the officer screwed up period. And as long as we have issues like this, as long as we have incompetence like this people, no matter their color, are going to come to the conclusion race is somehow involved. President Obama called this a teachable moment and it is a teachable moment to shine a spotlight on problems with law enforcement training and procedure, to shine a spotlight on an issue so in never happens again, to shine a spotlight on something that is defying the stereo type in a good way, to showcase an African American in his success, shining a spotlight on wrong that could have been easily made right, so that it will be in the future.

That being said, the so called “beer summit” at the White House was hardly the way to handle it, as it rewards bad behavior on the part of the officer; it does nothing to insure that he gets the retaining he is obviously in need of. There was also no apology from the officer to Mr. Gates; news coverage of the meeting shows it as tension filled. And the messages sent by this are divided along racial lines. The message for whites and police officers is: get into an altercation with a black person A- get media attention B get possible free trip to the White House and meet the President; the message for blacks: have altercation with police, get arrested for losing your patience on your own property, where you were minding your own business in the first place, because they refuse to believe you live there, A- be dubbed crazy for defending your rights and dignity B- be cajoled by, in this case the President, to sit down and have a discussion with the offending party. The President seems to go from calling it like it is to shake hands and make nice, almost belittling race issues. All of it totally side stepping the lager issue for backs and other minorities that despite all of Henry Louis Gates’ successes, despite going to school, despite giving back to his community by becoming what people need desperately today, a teacher, despite carving out his piece of the American dream, earning rather than stealing the things he wanted, despite not turning to illicit activities, he is treated this way. And despite progress, despite civil rights, despite where we think we are nearly a decade into the new millennium, Mr. Gates seems to have been arrested, in part for being black. Yet even now with a black president much of the social landscape hasn’t changed; yet even now much of the debate needing to be had isn’t happening.