A white police sergeant accused of racism after he arrested renowned black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home insisted Wednesday he won't apologize for his treatment of the Harvard professor, but President Barack Obama said police had acted "stupidly."
Gates has demanded an apology from Sgt. James Crowley, who had responded to the home near Harvard University to investigate a report of a burglary and demanded the scholar show him identification. Police say Gates at first refused and then accused the officer of racism.
Gates said Crowley walked into his home without his permission and only arrested him as the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant's name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.
Obama, during a prime-time news conference, said Wednesday he didn't know what role race played in the incident but added that police in Cambridge, a city neighboring Boston, "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates even after he offered proof that he was in his own home.
"I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry," Obama said. "Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three — what I think we know separate and apart from this incident — is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that's just a fact."
He said federal officials need to continue working with local law enforcement "to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias."
Crowley said Wednesday he's disappointed by the heated national debate triggered by the incident and insisted he followed proper procedures in arresting Gates last week on a charge of disorderly conduct. The charge was dropped Tuesday.
Officers were responding to the home Gates rents from Harvard after a woman reported seeing "two black males with backpacks" trying to force open the front door, according to a police report. Gates, who had returned from a trip overseas with a driver, said he had to shove the door open because it was jammed. He was inside, calling the company that manages the property, when police arrived.
Gates was accused by police of "tumultuous" behavior toward the officers. But Gates countered by saying Crowley was clearly responding to racial profiling and "couldn't understand a black man standing up for his rights, right in his face."
In a region with a tortured racial history, two overarching arguments have emerged about the incident. Police supporters charge that Gates, director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, was responsible for his own arrest by overreacting.
Those sympathetic to Gates counter that the officer should have defused the situation and left the home as soon as he established that Gates was the resident, not a burglar.
Crowley said he's grateful he has the support of his police force. He said he's not worried about any possible disciplinary action.
"There will be no apology," he said outside his home Wednesday.
Cambridge police and the police officers' union have declined to comment.
But there was plenty of blame being spread around by the public, through talk shows, blogs, newspaper online forums and water cooler chats. Even the hosts of a sports radio show in Boston spent much of Wednesday morning faulting Gates.
Gov. Deval Patrick, who is black, said he was troubled and upset over the incident. Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons, who also is black, has said she spoke with Gates and apologized on behalf of the city, and a statement from the city called the July 16 incident "regrettable and unfortunate."
What happened between Gates and Crowley at the professor's home remains in dispute.
Police say Gates yelled at the officer, accused him of racial bias and refused to calm down after the officer demanded Gates show him identification to prove he lived there. Gates denies that he yelled at the officer, other than to repeatedly ask his name and badge number, and he says he readily turned over his driver's license and Harvard ID to prove his residence and identity.
Gates said he was "outraged" by the arrest, wants an apology from Crowley and would use the experience to help make a documentary about racial profiling in the United States.
"This isn't about me, this is about the vulnerability of black men in America," he said.
He said the incident made him realize how vulnerable poor people and minorities are "to capricious forces like a rogue policeman, and this man clearly was a rogue policeman."
Gates' supporters cite Boston's history as a city plagued by racism as an underlying reason why this could still happen to an esteemed scholar, at midday, in his own home.
"That stain on this city — as far as persons of color are concerned — is a real one," television and radio commentator Callie Crossley said.
Crossley said many people criticizing Gates for overreacting or for losing his cool have never been profiled by authorities because of their race.
She recalled the case of Charles Stuart, who caused a citywide manhunt in 1989, when he said a hooded black man shot him and killed his pregnant wife as they got into their car. Stuart eventually was labeled the killer, but not before a black man arrested on unrelated charges became the prime suspect.
Stuart committed suicide the next year by jumping off a bridge.
Perhaps nothing epitomizes Boston's struggle with race relations better than the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the uproar over the integration of public school students in the 1970s. The photo shows a white man swinging a large pole with an American flag at a black man during a protest against the desegregation plan at City Hall.
Black students and professors at Harvard have complained for years about racial profiling by Cambridge and campus police. Harvard commissioned an independent committee last year to examine the university's race relations after campus police confronted a young black man who was using tools to remove a bike lock. The man worked at Harvard and owned the bike.
Michele Lamont, a sociology and African-American studies professor at Harvard, said she understood why Gates reacted angrily to the police officer in his home given that larger history of confrontations with police — as well as his own.
"Certainly when someone like Gates finds himself in this situation, he has in mind this baggage," Lamont said.
Richard Weinblatt, director of the Institute for Public Safety at Central Ohio Technical College, said the police sergeant was responsible for defusing the situation once he realized Gates was the lawful occupant. It is not against the law to yell at police, especially in a home, as long as that behavior does not affect an investigation, he said.
"That is part of being a police officer in a democratic society," Weinblatt said. "The point is that the police sergeant needs to be the bigger person, take the higher road, be more professional."