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A power play, not prejudice

SANDY BANKS

The controversial arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a white police sergeant in Cambridge, Mass., was not necessarily about race. At its heart was a classic show of authority.

July 25, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I can already envision the hate mail this column will generate. Every time I write about anything involving race, my inbox fills with invective -- racial slurs, rants about the "welfare crowd," suggestions that I stop whining, go back to Africa and turn my "affirmative action job" over to some slighted white person.

So I know a bit about how Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. James Crowley must have felt when he was insulted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after showing up to investigate a possible break-in at the professor's home.

Being accused of racism hurts, makes you want to fight back. My job requires that I not be goaded into incivility, because it's not my personal honor hanging on my response, but the reputation of my newspaper and the dignity of my profession.

I wish Crowley had thought of that during his public face-off with Professor Gates.

We don't know all the details of their encounter, but what began with Gates trying to dislodge his jammed front door ended with the 58-year-old African American scholar in handcuffs, under arrest for being -- according to Crowley's police report -- "loud and tumultuous."

The disorderly conduct charge was dropped, but the stain it left seems destined to spread. The incident has reignited a national debate over racial profiling, and even drawn the president into the back-and-forth.

But this is not as simple as black suspect, white cop. And race might not be the bottom line.

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I was angry when I first heard the news. If "Skip" Gates -- prominent scholar, author and friend of Barack Obama -- can be arrested on his own front porch simply for mouthing off to a cop, then the rest of us "loud and tumultuous" black folks surely better stay inside.

Then I cringed when I read the officer's account of Gates' alleged tirade, riddled with the kind of "yo' momma" insults we used to trade on the school playground. I could feel Gates' fury, and imagine Crowley feeling bound to flex his power.

According to the police report, Crowley had been summoned by someone who thought Gates was breaking into the home. Gates seemed incensed by the presumption and was initially uncooperative.

But once Gates produced his driver's license and Harvard ID, it seems to me the officer's job was done. No crime, no suspect, no need to hang around.

Instead, the scene escalated. Gates began yelling for the officer's name and badge number; Crowley ordered the professor onto the porch. Gates called Crowley racially biased; Crowley warned him to calm down and unsnapped his handcuffs.

That's when the officer's actions turned a minor altercation into a national drama.

The story resonates here in Los Angeles, where the Police Department is finally shedding its generations-old reputation for callous treatment of minorities and general rudeness to civilians. The department still has a ways to go; hundreds of racial profiling complaints have been filed in recent years, and the LAPD has not considered a single one valid.

But at least our cops are more civil when they pull you over.

That's by design, said Capt. Bill Scott, a 20-year veteran who commands the northeast San Fernando Valley's Mission Division.

"We're training to have thick skin, not to take things personally," said Scott, a former training officer. "Even if the person you're dealing with is verbally attacking you, you can't react to that."

Encounters with police can be traumatic for reasons officers might not understand, he said. "If somebody's upset, you have to allow people some room to vent. There's an acceptable range of venting that's allowable and understandable."

Was Gates outside that range, I asked, with his alleged yelling and accusations of racism? "There's no perfect formula for what's allowable," Scott said. "It depends on what that officer was comfortable with. You just can't let it get to the point where somebody's safety is at risk."

I asked him if Crowley was on a power trip? "Without knowing all the facts," he said, "I don't want to be critical of that department and that officer."

But he was clear on something that every officer ought to remember.

"It's always a better outcome when you can resolve a situation by using as little of your authority as possible. And a lot of that is how you perceive the other side. . . . And whether you're willing to explain what you're doing. Instead of just issuing an order."

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It would be naive to ignore the racial dimensions of this. A successful black man being interrogated in his own home, Gates may have seen the white cop as disrespectful. And Crowley, a well-regarded white officer, probably expected deference, not insults, from the black man he'd been called to help.

But at its heart, this is a power struggle that didn't have to happen. The police -- as Obama put it before he felt compelled to back off -- acted stupidly.

I can see hands poised over keyboard now, ready to unleash a flood of e-mails. So here I go:

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