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Obama says police acted 'stupidly' in arresting black professor

The president links the arrest of friend Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard to the disparate treatment of minorities by police.

July 23, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday injected himself into the national debate over how law enforcement treats minorities.

Responding to a question during his news conference, Obama said that the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department had acted "stupidly" in arresting his friend, prominent African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The Harvard University professor was handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct last week after police responded to a possible break-in at his home.

Acknowledging that he did not know all the facts of the case or what role, if any, Gates' race had played, Obama linked the incident to disparate treatment of minorities by police.

"I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.

"And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped . . . disproportionately," the president said. "That's just a fact."

Gates, 58, has said that he endured a "terrifying and humiliating" experience at the jail, where he was booked, fingerprinted, photographed, questioned and put in a small cell. He has demanded an apology from the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley.

Earlier Wednesday, Crowley told the Associated Press, "There will be no apology."

On Tuesday, the Cambridge Police Department and Middlesex County District Attorney's Office announced that the charges would be dropped, calling the incident "regrettable" and "unfortunate."

"This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department," the department said in a statement.

Calls to the department and the district attorney's office Wednesday night were not returned.

Reached by phone late Wednesday, Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who served as Gates' lawyer after his arrest, said he was pleased that Obama had paid attention to the situation. Obama, he said, "was right on in terms of saying we have a problem."

Ogletree, who taught the president while he was a student at Harvard Law School, said the remarks did not surprise him.

"I think the president has been around for 47 years. He has enough experience to know these kinds of things happen," he said. During the presidential campaign, Obama often joked about his difficulties hailing a cab in Manhattan.

The Gates incident, Obama said, serves as a reminder that although he made history as the nation's first black president, that achievement has not soothed all of the nation's deep divisions over race.

"I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made," Obama said. "And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us. . . . I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody's going to be."

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joliphant@latimes.com

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