Gates arrest: racial profiling or 'tempest in a teapot'?

The city of Cambridge, Mass., has dropped its charges against a Harvard professor who alleges he was arrested for breaking into his own house only because he is black.

Josh Reynolds/AP/File
In this 2008 file photo, Henry Louis Gates poses for a photograph in his home in Cambridge, Mass. Gates has accused the Cambridge police of racism after being arrested trying to get into his own locked home near Harvard University on July 16.
Charles Krupa/AP
A bicyclist passes by the home of Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Mass. on Monday, July 20.

Prosecutors in Cambridge, Mass., on Tuesday dropped disorderly conduct charges against Henry Louis Gates, a prominent professor at Harvard University and author of multiple books about the black experience in America.

But Mr. Gates' arrest on the front porch of his own home last week became a moment of national reflection, with Gates insisting that the incident was evidence of the persistence of racial profiling – even in one of America's most liberal cities.

Gates has told The Washington Post that he now intends to do a documentary on racial profiling – an idea that had "never crossed his mind" before now. The "criminal justice system is rotten," he said.

Gates was returning from filming a TV project called "Faces of America" in China last Thursday. According to the police report, police received a call that two men black were trying to break into Gates's house. In fact, the two men were Gates and his driver, who were trying to open the front door, which was jammed.

Both sides have suggested that the other was argumentative. The police report says Gates eventually became verbally abusive, accusing the officer of suspecting him simply because he was black. He was arrested soon after and placed in jail for four hours.

Cambridge police officials claim that the incident was an unfortunate escalation of wills. "I think what went wrong is that you had two human beings that were reacting ... and cooler heads did not prevail," said Cambridge police spokeswoman Kelly Downes. "It wasn't Professor Gates's best moment, and it was not the Cambridge Police Department's best moment."

Law enforcement analysts are inclined to agree, suggesting that the incident may have been only a "tempest in a teapot."

"The best motto for a police officer is that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me," says George Kirkham, a former police officer and now a professor of criminology at Florida State University. "People wind up venting, and you have to let them vent."

Moreover, police officers should be particularly aware of historical injustices suffered by African Americans, he adds: "Blacks have had experiences with bullhorns and dogs in the South, and those wounds go deep – they're more sensitive and we need to realize that."

Commentators have taken both sides. Garrard McClendon, a black Chicago talk show host, called Gates's cries of racism "weak." But David Bernstein of the legal blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, writes: "Yelling at a cop isn't a crime."

Twenty-three states, including Massachusetts, have enacted legislation banning racial profiling. But such practices – stopping suspects on the basis of what they look like – are still prevalent, some say. A recent study showed that 89 percent of traffic stops in New York City involved non-whites.

"We are a country founded on Jeffersonian ideals, and people don't like government in their lives," says Professor Kirkham. "[Police] need to be aware of that."

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