How Cambridge police stared down a president

The police union's combative press conference Friday was an example of how the profession closes ranks in times of trouble.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley (l.) attends news conference with representatives of various police unions in Cambridge, Mass., Friday. The unions expressed their support for Crowley, who has been criticized for arresting Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. on disorderly conduct charges on July 16.

Mere hours after the police union of Cambridge, Mass., brazenly demanded an apology from the president of the United States, it – in essence – got it.

While President Obama's unscheduled appearance at a routine White House press conference was not an explicit apology, Mr. Obama acknowledged that he now regretted his choice of words in a Wednesday night press conference. He had said that Sgt. James Crowley "acted stupidly" for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front porch.

With his comments Friday – including his promise to bring Crowley and Professor Gates to the White House for an informal get-together – Obama went some way toward removing the damage his earlier comment made. Many police officers and experts said the comment had driven a wedge into what had been a collegial relationship between the White House and police.

But the union's hard line – successfully staring down a president – is a window into the so-called Thin Blue Line – the "Band of Brothers" mentality that draws police departments closer in times of crisis.

It is a product of the nature of policing, with officers relying on each other, in some cases, to protect their own lives. But, to some experts, the attitude also highlights a "bunker mentality" that can stymie community relations and even hinder fair investigations.

"When an individual police officer is attacked and his motives impugned, the force will close ranks. It doesn't matter if it's a man of the cloth, an elderly grandmother, or the president of the United States, the union is going to respond," says Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle.

In a combative news conference Friday, the president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, Dennis O'Connor, said suggestions that race played a role in Crowley's actions were unwarranted and need correction.

"Whatever may be the history, we deeply resent the implications and reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case that they've allowed a person's race to direct their activities. However, we hope they will reflect upon their past comments and apologize to the men and women of the Cambridge Police Department," said Mr. O'Connor.

In his surprise appearance later Friday, Obama did not back down from his opinion that Crowley's decision to arrest Gates for disorderly conduct was an "overreaction." But he added that he unintentionally contributed to "ratcheting up" the situation. "In my choice of words, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could've calibrated those words differently," he said.

Police officers agree. "One of the things that was so impressive to me about the president's statement is that he said bluntly what was on his mind and in his heart [as the first black president]," says Mr. Stamper. "What did trouble me, though, was the use of the term 'stupid.' "

In the end, that word acted to motivate and unify one of the most tightly knit professions in the country.

The entire dust-up exemplifies "that everybody behind the badge is on the same team and everybody else is on the other team," says Radley Balko, a commentator at Reason Magazine who has written widely on the growing "militarization" of American police. "It's a classic bunker mentality."

But Obama took strides toward easing tensions Friday. "The president has gone a long way of undoing the harm that was done by the original comment," says Jim Pasco, director of the Fraternal Order of Police's legislative division in Washington.

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