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July 27th, 2009
09:45 PM ET

Police profiling: The lost lesson in this teachable moment

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/US/07/27/gates.arrest/art.jim.crowley.wcvb.jpg]
Robert Zimmerman
AC360° Contributor and CNN Political Analyst

As I spent my rainy Sunday in New York watching all the well balanced, politically correct and diversified panels discuss the arrest of Professor Gates, I was struck by the glaring reality that no one on the panels that I observed was a member of or associated with the police profession.

Yes, there were political pundits, sociologists, media commentators, radio talk show hosts, the occasional academician and the inevitable author or two. Many sounded like they were reciting their favorite scenes from Law and Order as they tossed around phrases describing the arrest and their interpretation of why the charges were dropped. Almost all agreed that they did not know what specifically precipitated the arrest, the reasons for it or how race was a factor. However, there was a conclusion among many that race was a factor. This was a particularly stunning conclusion considering the exemplary career of Sergeant James Crowley. For five years Sgt. Crowley taught a class on racial profiling at the Lowell Police Academy. He was hand-picked for that assignment by former Police Commissioner Ron Watson, who is African-American. President Obama described Sgt. Crowley as an "outstanding police officer and a good man" and said that he has "a fine track record on racial sensitivity."

Racial profiling or biased policing is a well documented, shameful and tragic aspect of law enforcement history. It also exists in many other aspects of our nation's culture and society. In examining this issue, I took the daring initiative to actually speak to a respected member of the police profession on this matter. In fact, I spoke to one of our nation's most highly regarded and successful leaders in policing, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton. In addition to his present position and serving as the President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, he formerly served as the New York City Police Commissioner and the Police Commissioner for the City of Boston.

Chief Bratton reviewed with me the extensive measures that police have aggressively taken to address the issue of racial profiling in the past 15 years. He pointed out that this issue is being confronted through changes in law that make racial profiling illegal and give the Federal government enforcement powers to combat it. In the selection process for new recruits, police are required and trained to look for signs of bias and prejudice. Additionally, new policies and procedures are continually being developed to strengthen supervision, documentation and the investigation of citizen complaints of racial profiling. Many police cars also now have video equipment to monitor police and their interactions with citizens. The police profession has been addressing the issues of race and bias more openly than American society as a whole.

The teachable moment from this experience should seek to raise awareness of racial profiling and bias policing, and the ways to address it. However, the lesson will be lost if we do not also address the dangers of police profiling- the automatic assumption that racial profiling is the issue when an encounter or arrest is made of a person of color by a white police officer.

soundoff (354 Responses)
  1. Ralph Wilson

    Apparently the ID he provided first did not have the address and according to the police statement he did not offer his ID but did offer that this was being done because of his race. I went to college for 12 years and the "profile" now showing about Gates is consistent with the profile on the campus I went to. I generally cooperate with the police and if I don't I expect there to be trouble regardless of my race.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:59 pm |
  2. Micheal

    I strongly believe this has nothing to do with race .It more had to do with 2 grown men behaving like kids. You see it everyday no one wants to admit they are wrong .The cop was wrong for refusing to identify himself when asked and the professor is also wrong to no immediately identify himself when ask before strting to argue and the cops was wrong to argue with the person after he recieved the id verfying the person and the address

    July 27, 2009 at 3:59 pm |
  3. Limey

    This "professor" needs to go back to school on life lessons. If anyone, regardless of color, height, smell, sexual gender, etc... was seen breaking into a house whether it was theirs or not they should expect that the police will come and question them at length.

    I want the police in my neighborhood to act in this manner. To keep my family and friends safe and to quell criminal activity.

    If you can't deal with the consequences of your actions then don't just break out the race card everytime you get called on them.

    King of all Blacks

    July 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
  4. Laura

    What I find most frustrating about this situation is that no one has taken the time to LISTEN to what officer Crowley had to say in his explanation of the situation. He gets a call about a possible break-in, and when he arrives at the house, he finds an older gentleman with a cane. The driver for Mr. Gates has already left. So at this point, Crowley needs to determine if there are two men hiding in the house who have just broken in unbeknownst to Mr. Gates. That is why he asked him to step outside. Crowley wanted to ensure Mr. Gates safety. In other words, he was TRYING to do his job. If officer Crowley left after checking Mr. Gates's ID, and Gates was then murdered by thieves, then what? Is everyone going to scream bloody murder, that if Gates was white, then Crowley would have taken the time to ensure his safety?

    July 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
  5. Andy

    Crowley is not a racist. Gates clearly overreacted. Crowley then overreacted by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct. And that's that.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
  6. Pete

    ****(Why did the police DROP the CHARGES?)*****

    All you people that say GATES was wrong. Then if GATES was so guilty, then WHY did the police DROP the CHARGES? Because the charges would NOT hold up in COURT.

    ****(The REAL question to ask is. WHY did the police **(DROP)** the CHARGES? The only 2 reason the COPS drop charges are. Either the cops did NOT have a good enough case or good enough evidence to win the case. Or the COPS made a MISTAKE with the arrest and decided to DROPPED the case. The COPS **(DID)** DROP the LOUIS GATES case. And for whatever reason the police DROPPED the LOUIS GATES case, makes the cops look **(GUILTY)**! But people don't bring this up. Gee, I wonder why?)******

    July 27, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
  7. Chris

    @ Angela – If you listen to the 911 tapes Gates can be heard screaming "keep the cars coming". As a white male even I know it's a bad idea to test the cops. If you push them, nine times out of ten they will more then likely arrest you just to keep order at the scene. I think the real issue here that no one wants to mention is the fact that just because Gates is black, that doesn't give him license or authority to mouth off to a cop of any color. I've known since I was 16, mouth off to the cops and you're asking for it. Clearly the cop just wanted to protect himself and his fellow officers (HELLO?! Why the charges were dropped!). No one, of any color, should be surprised at the fact that when they mouth of to the cops they will likely get arrested.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:57 pm |
  8. DaleZ

    Enuff already.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:56 pm |
  9. Fay - California

    It's true that not all police interactions with minorities stem from racial profiling, but I do agree with Angela – once Professor Gates provided evidence that it was in fact his home, the entire situation should've ended there.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:56 pm |
  10. Denise Gerson

    You said it!! And anyone who does not realize that Officer Crowley did not call for back-up because he did not accept that Professor Gates lived at the house - like Angela - does not understand the chain of events that transpired. Gates brought this upon himself.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:55 pm |
  11. Geno

    If a black police officer had arrested a white man under the same circumstances would all the pundits and "experts" even be talking about it. I doubt it-that is policie profiling

    July 27, 2009 at 3:54 pm |
  12. John

    Angela – the officer didn't leave right after Gates showed his license because there was a disturbance going on where Gates was acting like a fool, causing a disturbance, yelling, mouthing off, and causing a scene which is disorderly conduct. It doesn't matter that Gates was on his front porch. If you are causing a scene in the view of the public so as to create on-lookers to notice by yelling and cursing, that is disorderly conduct, which is against the law. Unfortunately, this law exists because there are people out there who still think that you don't have to do what a police officer orders you to do. There would have been NO problem had Gates acted like a normal person and let the officer do his job. Gates was the one who was being racial.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:54 pm |
  13. Holly

    I was raised to respect and cooperate with law officers. I was also taught years later by a family friend who was a 15 year veteran of the Philadelphia police force that officers are trained to watch for certain signs of a situation escalating to a point that could be threatening to the first responders and or bystanders. He told me that it is not uncommon for a person being questioned by a policeman to be come rude or loud but they are trained that if the subject starts to back away and refuse to make eye contact or gestures wildly it is a sign that the person may run or become violent. He told me that at this point any officer has the right to restrain said person to prevent harm to themselves, the officer and bystanders.

    Professor Gates probably did all of the above as well as slander a decorated officer.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:54 pm |
  14. LATASHA

    I'M JUST TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHO WAS THIS PERSON THAT CALLED 911 ABOUT A BREAK-IN. WAS IT A HATEFUL NEIGHBOR?I KNOW WHO MY NEIGHBORS ARE AND WOULD NEVER CALL 911 BECAUSE THEY ARE TRYING TO GET INTO THEIR OWN HOME

    July 27, 2009 at 3:53 pm |
  15. William N

    As far as I know the protocol for answering a "burglary in progress," call, is for the Polie to go with their guns drawn. No-body has brought this up. Obviously I was not there, but even President Obama would get upset if he is confronted in his own house by a Policeman with his guns drawn. I feel the Police are not being transparent and are not putting all the facts out there. By not doing this, they are dividing the country.

    I think because of the possibility of a law-suit, they would rather make Mr. Gates look like an out of control idiot, wiping away all his accomplishments and his character, then make the Police look bad. They even made the president of the united States back-peddle and swallow his own words. This would have never have happened if Mr. Gates was white. Just imagine how common black folks suffer everyday in the hands of the Police.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm |
  16. tere

    Seems to me that racial profling was done but not by the police officer but by /Gates.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm |
  17. Valerie

    Exactly why is it as I white woman I should have to take race sensitivity classes but no Black woman does...this is racism to me....I am not going to be ran through the ringer for "the sins of my father". I treat all people regardless of race, religion or culture will respect as long as I am given that respect in return. There are no "freebees" in my moral compass. The professor was the beligerent one and drew the race card. The white cop called for back up because the "suspect" was disorderly and being obnoxious. Seems to me the professor should have enough brains to know better this is not the way to act scared to say he is teaching our future........I am really over this whole story and very disappointed in our President to allign himself with his friend over the law without knowing the facts. The learning lesson from this to me is .....if you are white be prepared to be called a racist if you dare stick up against a black.....

    July 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm |
  18. dianne

    Where's Obama's apology?

    July 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm |
  19. Dillard

    The thing that I have not seen discussed is that 2 men were seen forcing their way into the house. The officers had a responsibility to account for both of them before leaving. How much different would this story have been if Gates persuaded the cops to leave and the other guy was hiding in the housse with a gun?

    July 27, 2009 at 3:50 pm |
  20. NT721

    Yesterday two police officers were murdered in Oklahoma as they answered a call. An assailant unexpectedly opened fire on them.

    Earlier this year five Oakland police officers were killed in one day.

    These attacks occur far to often.

    The officer has every right to defend himself and error on the side of safety. Eventually the situation would have been resolved factually, but at that moment the homeowner, white or black, should have followed precisely the instructions of the police officer.

    We need to respect their authority and support them.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:49 pm |
  21. AVaughan

    How refreshing: someone is willing to recognize that racial profiling works both ways – white AND black!!

    July 27, 2009 at 3:48 pm |
  22. Doug T

    Good article...but another thing that I have not seen addressed that could be used as a real "teaching point" for those outside of law enforcement is to provide the minimum standards or articulable facts necessary for police officers to effect the arrest of a person for disorderly conduct.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:46 pm |
  23. Don Rosenberg Palatine, Illinois 60067

    Where did this professor go to school? He needs an attitude adjustment and should go to sensitivity training. Its obvious he had contempt for the white officer. Its also shameful how many blacks came to his aid just like with the murderer, OJ Simpson.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:46 pm |
  24. Jane

    Yes, racial profiling – in reverse. Prof. Gates looked at Sargeant Crowley as a white man, not as a police officer who was doing his duty and who might have had a good reason for doing and saying what he was trying to do and say.

    Sargeant Crowley was vigilant in trying to protect Prof. Gates from an intruder who might be hiding in his home. I've had intruders hiding in my home, unbeknownst to me.

    Seems to me that Prof. Gates is arrogant and racist in telling the Sargeant how to do HIS job; the Sargeant wouldn't try teaching the Prof.'s class, would he.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:46 pm |
  25. Wesley

    If you say "your mamma" to a police officer you are probably going to get a ride downtown, no matter what color you are.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:46 pm |
  26. dave

    The professor was quick to shout racism. He did this because cop was white and that makes the professor racist himself. The President and the Mayor were also quick to assume that because the officer was white the act was racist. Reverse racism is still racism and should be not be considered acceptable.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:46 pm |
  27. roxor

    This doesn't look like a racial issue, but more like the Police vs. the common man.

    Officers always have the option to "put people in their place." They enjoy exercising this power. Most people are smart enough not to report a police officer using the Boston PD's complaint process because the second you put your name and address on that form they know they are going to be harassed.

    The only mistake Crowley made was picking the wrong person to take his anger out on. I'm sure hundreds of other days he's been able to freely take his anger out on people and instead of fighting it most people take a plea bargain rather then fight the up hill battle.

    In the future expect LEOs from Cambridge to be a little more careful on who they exercise their police powers on.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:44 pm |
  28. Courtney from Charlotte, NC

    The whole Professor Gates issue has caused an uproar in America. I am personally appalled by it because I feel that the Cambridge Police Dept. acted very "stupidly" also. They promptly responded to the call which is in their job description; however, the arrest is what has struck a nerve with many people. After Professor Gates showed proper documentation, that should have been the end of it. However, Sgt. Crowley was taken aback by the fact that Gates was an educated black man; which was the sole reason for the arrest. You know so many people are tired of America making it seem as if racism doesn't exist, when we all know it does. To be honest, that is what hurts the most because not just America but people all over the world seem to be blinded by this reality.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:43 pm |
  29. lila

    I give Robert Zimmerman a lot of credit as a democrat and a liberal for standing up for the police officer.
    Thanks Robert, you are always so insightful!

    July 27, 2009 at 3:43 pm |
  30. Jeanne O'Grady

    I really don't think the problem was race. I think that it was testestrone.
    I bet Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor and Sarah Palin could tell you about that being the major dirty little secret in this country. We are addressing race and still have a long way to go. We haven't even started to address sexism.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:41 pm |
  31. Larry

    Bob! Why isn't your title 'Democratic Political Analyst'? That you're with CNN is a given.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:41 pm |
  32. Ken

    Missing is the discussion about the attitudes Police departments have taken on since the passing of the Patriot Act. By law and action, citizens are subservant to them reguardless of race.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:40 pm |
  33. Michael Fishbein

    I agree with your comments that racial profiling has a dual side and there seems to now be an automatic assumption that it occurs with regularity. President Obama was guilty of practicing racial profiling when he raised the issue and how terrible the police practice was, even when he admitted that he did not have all the facts at hand. He automatically profiled the white police officer as being racially intolerant and made comments based on his own history not the actual facts.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:38 pm |
  34. Beewat

    So, what about that "exemplary career of Sergeant James Crowley"? Do you get extra points for making things up in your police report to fix your set of facts? Who told Crowley about the two black men on the porch?

    July 27, 2009 at 3:38 pm |
  35. Gwen

    It doesn't take a commentary or some fancy degree to figure out that this cop is a racist, and should be the one arrested. Now it appears he will get off with little more than a 'lesson learned", while another dignified African American is shamed. Welcome to America.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:37 pm |
  36. craig ferrell

    I was about ready to say that Gates was crazy, then it turns out that Crowley lied on his police report and never talked to the neighbor, or was told by the neighbor it was 2 black men. He made up that part apparently, and he was the one that put "black men" in the neighbor's mouth who he never talked to or ever said it. Now I wonder how much more is made up by the officer.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:37 pm |
  37. Roy Gandy

    The suggestion of a meeting appears to be a winner for the President and the Professor; however, it makes the rule of law and police officers in general out as dishonest and distrustful.

    To have a meeting is an acknowledgement by the Police that there is room to compromise on the actions done. If there is to be an acknowledgement that the police did some wrong in this case, there should be legal action taken against them so it does not happen again. If there was no wrong, then does it not become like an Officer meeting with someone he cited with a speeding ticket and tries to see common ground with someone breaking the law of speeding or reckless driving?

    It appears the Police Officer followed his procedures by responding to a 911 call. The deck is now stacked against him if he meets with the Professor and his friend, The President, in a meeting that causes the Officer to reach some kind of middle ground on what he thought was a lawful action.

    There should be no meeting, but an apology by the Professor in how he dealt with some basic questions from his local police force. And an apology by the President for making this a huge deal – and a situation about race when it had nothing to do with race.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm |
  38. Rosemarie

    Robert once again you are right on.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:33 pm |
  39. Angela

    The biggest problem I have with this issue is this.....When Professor Gates provided his driver's license to Crowley that included his address. Why didn't Crowley accept the fact that Professor Gates lived at the resident? And why did he continue to call for back up after he received this information. We all still wonder was it because he was Black, probable so.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:33 pm |
  40. Peter Y

    Everyone keeps saying he does not have all the facts yet everyone rushes to form an opinion. I am of Asian origin and like to keep an open mind until I have known more tangible facts about the case. As of now, Walter Cronkite would not have reached any conclusion, would he?

    July 27, 2009 at 3:29 pm |
  41. Jesse A. Rodriguez

    My very simple question is "Has professor Gates ever taken a racial sensitivity class? it appeared he was very beligerent because a white cop questioned him; would he have reacted differently if a black cop questioned him?

    July 27, 2009 at 3:28 pm |
  42. Cliff Rockefeller

    Finally, somebody that is willing to see that not everything is related to race. The police were there to protect the home and its owner. The lesson we should really learn is to cooperate with the police instead of giving them a bunch of garbage about your race.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:26 pm |
  43. Chuck

    The sucker law - Disorderly Conduct - is the issue here. Police seems to apply this law as if it is "Contempt of Cop" law. This law should be defined and specified more narrowly - or else in its present form, it will continue to be interpreted by cops as "people as servants to the cop" law instead of the other way around.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:25 pm |
  44. Edith W

    "his was a particularly stunning conclusion considering the exemplary career of Sergeant James Crowley. For five years Sgt. Crowley taught a class on racial profiling at the Lowell Police Academy. He was hand-picked for that assignment by former Police Commissioner Ron Watson, who is African-American. "

    Are your thoughts still the same since it has been revealed that Sgt Crowley deliberately mislead (lied) on his police report?

    .....just wondering

    July 27, 2009 at 3:24 pm |
  45. suz

    Are police officers public servants or are they there to exert their authority in every situation? If police officers consider themselves as public servants then they should approach every situation with rendering assistance; particularly, when some house is suspected to be burgalerized. The main question then becomes what officer Crowley offered in the way of assistance after it was established that Professor Gates was indeed the legal resident in that house? The police officers go through lots of training for public safety. Why Dr. gates was arrested if public safety was not threatened? What was the state of mind of the officer Crowley when he entered Dr. Gates’ house? The behaviour of officer Crowley is troubling for the safety of the public at large. Why do they not have public service in mind?
    Why officer is not being investigated for civil rights violation of Dr. Gates? Is it a "police state" that a police officer can arrest any body from his own house? I believe the whole police dept needs to investigated if they are operating it like a police state.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:24 pm |
  46. Tracy

    Bravo, it seems the lost lesson here is that officer Crowley was falsley accused as being a racist just because he was a white officer. That false assumption led to everything else that followed.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:23 pm |
  47. Jeff B

    I think there is a possibility that the professor made the 'racial profiling' happen. There is likely little doubt Professor Gates was already exasperated by having to deal with his jammed door to begin with, but then the police show up.

    It seems to me quite possible that as soon as the thought struck Gates that this caucasain police officer was only doing what he was doing because Gates is African American, then Gates may have just pushed it to the point where it would appear that way.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:22 pm |
  48. Andrea

    At best Crowley filed an "inaccurate" report. At worst, he lied.
    I hope this cop admits he did not speak with the witness as indicated in his report and he made up the part about "two black males". I wonder what else in the report needs "correction"? When a police officer files an "inaccurate" and/or false report – HE PROFILES HIMSELF and brings dishonor to cops everywhere!

    July 27, 2009 at 3:15 pm |
  49. Mary

    I am a 40 something African American female I work as a professional and sometimes expert in the field of human behavor. I have two degrees. I share this as it may have an impact upon how I view the issue and the article. When I viewed the news programs assessment of the incident. I felt they were extremely biased in favor of the police. I was stunned to see Anderson Cooper (one of my favs)interview a police officer involved in the incident and labeling him as a WITNESS as if anyone who works for the Cambridge police department could give a fair an unbiased account of a situation that they were apart of.
    The comments in the above article that when white officers arrest a person of color it's assumed there is racial profiling is ridiculous! When people of color are arrested it is more often assumed that they have done something to warrant the arrest.
    I do think the Gates incident if not profiling was an abuse of power as there was no reason for him to be arrested. Either reason should not be tolerated in a democratic society.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:09 pm |
  50. cassie

    There are two sides to this coin. One is that many african-americans choose not to stay in school and grow up facing trouble with the law. That is something they themselves must work towards changing thus earning the trust and respect of the general public. That goes for every person and race/culture. The second is the fact that everyone, including the police, lawyers or the general public, should avoid profiling anyone based on race or colour. There is no place in society for that. What surprised me the most about this whole thing, was the fact that the President of the United States involved himself in a local matter.

    July 27, 2009 at 3:06 pm |
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