What should have happened in Gates confrontation?
Police experts say Gates probably overreacted. But Sergeant Crowley appeared to let the situation spiral out of control, they add.
Every day across America, police officers investigate murders, defuse domestic squabbles, and arrest dope dealers.Skip to next paragraph
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But training is just as important when officers come across a "real American" who is combative and refuses to defer to police authority – even if the alleged offense is relatively minor.
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the prominent Harvard scholar, has brought the issue of race and policing literally from the heights of academic inquiry to a dramatic faceoff between a blue-collar Boston-area cop and one of the ivory tower's most recognizable black scholars.
But perhaps one of the core underlying issues in the incident is one of policing: Officers walk a thin line between staying safe and adhering to the Constitution – and straying over that line can have consequences, especially when it involves the black community.
"We have a lot of African-American males in this country who are tired of having to justify their existence on the white streets of America," says Lorie Fridell, a criminologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "And if the police don't acknowledge that, they're going to lose a future person who will call the police with information, they're going to lose the witness to a crime, they're going to lose the person on the jury who believes the police officer's story."
Lessons to be learned
What lessons, then, can be drawn from the July 16 altercation on Gates' front porch on Ware Street?
For average Americans, the case shows that it's never a good idea to get "lippy," as police officers say, during an investigation of any kind.
And for police officers, it isn't just having "thick skin," one of America's top cops says. It is to understand, at a procedural level, the deep trust Americans have in basic constitutional values.
"Any cop can deal with a robbery suspect, but show me the cop who can handle a real American," says former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, quoting policing expert George Thompson. "That's someone, when you say, 'Roll down the window,' says, 'No,' or who meets you at the threshold at home and says, 'No, you can't come in. Show me your warrant.' "