Published July 21, 2009
Authorities dropped a disorderly conduct charge against a prominent Harvard University professor at the center of a robbery mix-up that happened when he re-entered his own home through a jammed front door.
The altercation at the house of 58-year-old Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the country's pre-eminent black scholars, stirred outrage among supporters who called his arrest blatant racial profiling.
Prosecutors announced the decision to drop the charge on Tuesday, following a recommendation by police.
The city of Cambridge, Mass., where Harvard is located, issued a statement saying the arrest "was regrettable and unfortunate" and police and Gates agreed that dropping the charge was a just resolution.
"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," the statement said.
Officers responded to the home Gates rents from Harvard after a woman reported seeing two black men who appeared to be breaking in.
Gates had just returned from a trip overseas and had to force his way into his house in Cambridge because the front door was stuck and wouldn't open.
Gates and his attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, declined immediate comment Tuesday.
The woman who called reported seeing "two black males with backpacks on the porch" of the well-maintained two-story home near the Harvard campus and said one of the men was "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry," according to Cambridge police.
The other man was a driver helping Gates, said Ogletree.
Officers responding to the robbery call on Thursday arrived after Gates was already back inside.
They say he became irate, yelled and refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a call about a home invasion.
"Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley.
Gates — the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and one of Time magazine's 1997 most influential Americans — initially refused to show the officer his identification, police said. He ultimately turned over a Harvard University ID card.
"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.
Gates said in a statement that he turned over his driver's license and Harvard ID — both with his photos — and repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the officer, who refused.
He then followed the officer as he left his house onto his front porch, where he was handcuffed in front of other officers, he said. His account of the incident was released Monday by Ogletree on TheRoot.com, a Web site Gates runs.
He was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior," and was released later that day on his own recognizance.
An arraignment had been scheduled for Aug. 26. The maximum penalty Gates had been facing before the charge was dropped was a $150 fine.
Ogletree disputed the claim that Gates, who was wearing slacks and a polo shirt and carrying a cane, was yelling at the officer.
"He has an infection that has impacted his breathing since he came back from China, so he's been in a very delicate physical state," Ogletree said.
Police wrote in their report that when the sergeant on the scene tried to calm Gates, he shouted "You don't know who your [sic] messing with!", and when it was suggested they talk about the matter outside, he retorted, "Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside."
Cambridge officers said that the altercation drew several "surprised and alarmed" onlookers to the house to see what was going on.
Ogletree declined to say whether he believed the incident was racially motivated, saying, "I think the incident speaks for itself."
"He was shocked to find himself being questioned and shocked that the conversation continued after he showed his identification," the lawyer said.
Some of Gates' African-American colleagues say the arrest is part of a pattern of racial profiling in Cambridge.
Allen Counter, who has taught neuroscience at Harvard for 25 years, said he was stopped on campus by two Harvard police officers in 2004 after being mistaken for a robbery suspect. They threatened to arrest him when he could not produce identification.
"We do not believe that this arrest would have happened if professor Gates was white," Counter said. "It really has been very unsettling for African-Americans throughout Harvard and throughout Cambridge that this happened."
The Rev. Al Sharpton immediately threw his support behind Gates and blasted officers for their handling of the matter.
"This arrest is indicative of at best police abuse of power or at worst the highest example of racial profiling I have seen," Sharpton said. "I have heard of driving while black and even shopping while black but now even going to your own home while black is a new low in police community affairs."
Ogletree said Gates had returned from a trip to China on Thursday with a driver, when he found his front door jammed.
He went through the back door into the home, shut off an alarm and worked with the driver to get the door open.
The driver left, and Gates was on the phone with the property's management company when police first arrived.
Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard, said he met with Gates at the police station and described his colleague as feeling humiliated and "emotionally devastated."
"It's just deeply disappointing but also a pointed reminder that there are serious problems that we have to wrestle with," he said.
Bobo called on the department to use the incident to review training and screening procedures it has in place.
The Middlesex district attorney's office said it could not do so until after Gates' arraignment. The woman who reported the apparent break-in did not return a message Monday.
Gates joined the Harvard faculty in 1991 and holds one of 20 prestigious "university professors" positions at the school. He also was host of "African American Lives," a PBS show about the family histories of prominent U.S. blacks, and was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1997.
"I was obviously very concerned when I learned on Thursday about the incident," Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust said in a statement. "He and I spoke directly and I have asked him to keep me apprised."
FOXNews.com's Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.