Obama, police group clash over black scholar's arrest

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 23, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The nation's largest law enforcement organization chastised President Barack Obama Thursday for saying the Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" for arresting prominent African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates at his home last week.

The criticism by the 325,000-member Fraternal Order of Police came as White House officials tried to clarify Obama's caustic characterization of Cambridge police's handling of the Gates situation during a prime-time televised news conference Wednesday.

Chuck Canterbury, the FOP's national president, said Obama's comments were "made without the facts" and "do little to narrow the void of distrust that too often separates the community from the men and women who work to keep it safe."

When asked about Gates' arrest during Wednesday's news conference, Obama acknowledged that he didn't have all the facts in the case but added: "The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home . . . what I think we know — separate and apart from this incident — is that there is a long history in their country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately, and that's just a fact."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that Obama doesn't regret speaking out on the incident between Gates, a friend of the president, and police officers who responded to a report of a possible break-in at the scholar's home. Gates is a prominent professor at Harvard University.

Gates, who was returning from out of town, jimmied his front door open and told police he lived in the house. He was arrested for "loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space" and held in custody for four hours.

Gates asserts that he's a victim of racial profiling and has demanded an apology from Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer. Crowley has said that he won't apologize.

Gibbs said Obama felt that when it became clear that Gates wasn't a burglary suspect, "cooler heads on all sides should have prevailed." Gibbs said Obama wanted to make clear that he wasn't disparaging the arresting officer.

"He was not calling the officer stupid, okay?" Gibbs said. "I think, again, (Obama was) denoting that at a certain point the situation got far out of hand, and I think all sides understand that."

Crowley defended himself in an interview with a Boston radio station Thursday, saying the only thing he's sorry about is that, "I was not aware who Professor Gates was."

"I am still amazed that somebody of his level of intelligence would stoop to such a level, berate me, accuse me of me being racist, of racial profiling," Crowley told Boston's WEEI.

The Associated Press reported that Crowley was an instructor at the Lowell Police Academy for five years and taught a course on racial profiling and how officers should handle certain situations.

Gibbs' clarification Thursday wasn't enough to satisfy congressional Republicans. The National Republican Senatorial Committee announced that it would run Web ads using Obama's remarks to attack the president and the junior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry.

"Does John Kerry think it's appropriate for our nation's commander-in-chief to stand before a national audience and criticize the men and women in law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day, when, by his own admission, he doesn't even know all the facts?" NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh asked in a statement.

Kerry isn't up for re-election until 2014.

Obama's remarks drew praise, however, from several African-American law enforcement officers and elected officials.

"He was right on point," said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the 15,000-member National Black Police Association. "A post-racial society doesn't exist. We're still in a civil rights era. What happened to Gates happens to poor black and brown people every day."

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Obama was "right on target."

"We all know, we come from communities where some of us actually understand, and know, and have been racially profiled," said Lee, surrounded by fellow Black Caucus members. "It's an example of the unfinished business of America that inequalities and racism continues to exist."

Obama's Wednesday comments surprised Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University political science professor. Ransom, an African-American, noted that Obama only sporadically addressed issues of race during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"He ran a de-racialized campaign, so I found it interesting that when he was asked about Gates, he didn't duck, he didn't dodge," he said. "I know there's criticism, but I think his (Obama's) response was measured and, I think, appropriate."

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