Even after 911 tape released in Gates case, questions linger

The woman who placed the call never said anything about black men breaking into Professor Gates's house. So how did it get into Sergeant Crowley's report?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Cambridge City Manager Robert Healy speaks at a news conference concerning the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., accompanied by Mayor Denise Simmons, right, and Police Commissioner Robert Haas, near left, at the Cambridge Police Department in Cambridge, Monday.
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The Cambridge Police Department on Monday released tapes from the 911 call and the incident that led to the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front porch, putting to rest some questions but raising others.

The 911 caller never mentions black men in the 911 recording. She says she saw two men attempting to force entry into Professor Gates's house, but she did not mention their race until asked by the dispatcher. Then she guessed – incorrectly – that one might be Hispanic.

This seems to suggest that so-called "racial profiling by proxy" – police being influenced by racial biases of a caller – did not come directly into play in the Gates arrest. But it leaves unresolved a line in Sgt. James Crowley's police report, where he says a neighbor told him two black men entered the house.

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The case set off a firestorm of debate about the tensions between blacks and law enforcement. After first saying the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates, President Obama on Friday said he hoped the incident would be a "teachable moment" for a nation still fraught with racial mistrust.

But part of that introspection includes getting all the facts out in the open, critics say.

The Cambridge Police Department sought to do just that by releasing the tapes Monday. The tapes shed some light, but still leave room for debate about what, exactly, happened on July 16 on Ware Street.

Gates, who is black, had returned from a business trip and was trying to force open the front door of his house – which was jammed – with his limo driver, whom Gates has described as Moroccan.

The 911 tape indicates that the caller, Lucia Whalen, wasn't even sure that she was witnessing a break-in. "I don't know if they live there, and they just had a hard time with their key, but I did notice that they kind of used their shoulder to try to barge in, and they got in," she said.

After arriving on the scene, Crowley confronted Gates. Gates first refused to show ID, but later let the officer in and showed him two forms of identification, while berating him for racially profiling him. The officer has said he was ascertaining facts after being called to an area that had seen a spike in the number of daytime burglaries.

But the tapes failed to clear up the debate over how unruly Mr. Gates actually became during the encounter, leading to his arrest for disorderly conduct. The charges were subsequently dropped.

While Crowley wrote in his report that Gates' behavior on the porch "alarmed" the neighbors on the street, communications between the sergeant and the Cambridge dispatch center are unclear and don't immediately indicate that Gates was being overly noisy in his protestations.

In the tapes, Crowley says, calmly, that he's "with a gentleman who says he resides here [but] is rather uncooperative."

He then adds: "Keep the cars coming."

Commentators said the tapes were important to clear up several murky details.

"We need to get to the truth of what happened in order to learn from this incident," writes William Jacobson, a Cornell University Law School professor, on his Legal Insurrection blog. "We need a winner and a loser, based on the evidence of what actually happened. No one truly can move on, and we can't just all get along, until then."

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