Friday, July 24, 2009

"Obama's Rush to Judgment" Edition

Maria Haberfeld, a political scientist, responds to the president's charge that the police acted "stupidly" in Gatesgate:
Was it stupid behavior or was it an understandable result of police procedure -- the culture, or rather sub-culture, of this profession. People depend on police in a time of trouble but are quicker than lightning to judge harshly when things go wrong. But the most important question in this case is: Did they go wrong?
That is, indeed, the central question.

"Culture" is the mantra of the contemporary social scientist (and many in the humanities), but appeals to culture cannot excuse every action. Actions can be common orthodox or downright holy in your culture or sub-culture, and still be stupid.

And, of course, were we to take the sub-culture of the policeman into account, we'd have to take Gates's most notable sub-culture into account. This sort of interaction has got to be more upsetting for the average black person than it would be for the average white person.

More relevant than knee-jerk appeals to culture is Haberfeld's appeal to the actual, physical facts about police work--it's sometimes dangerous, and the police have obligations that ordinary citizens do not. Those strike me as relevant points.

And if the officer had thought that Gates was dangerous, then I would be inclined to defend his actions.

However, he did not arrest Gates for any such reason. He arrested him for disorderly conduct. Gates was pushing it ("I'll speak to your mama outside"), and some people--academicians in particular, academicians at prestigious universities in particular--can be obnoxious and high-handed. You don't know Gates, I don't know Gates, maybe he's that kind of guy. But the man was in his own house. Sgt. Crowley admits that he had already concluded that Gates was in his own house. Crowley did not think Gates was dangerous. He just didn't like the way that Gates was talking to him.

My view, after perhaps insufficient thought, is that Crowley was probably rather more in the wrong than in the right, but this is a close enough call that we'd have to know more details about the situation. Degrees of belligerence matter in cases like this, and we don' t know exactly how belligerent Gates was being.

As for Obama's comment that the police acted "stupidly"...meh, it's not unreasonable given what we know, but it's not clearly spot-on, either. Crowley obviously went to the house with the best intentions, and was, no doubt, just trying to do his job. But for that matter Gates was just trying to get in his house, probably tired and cranky after just coming back from China. The situation was ripe for conflict.

I'm sure it hurt Crowley's feelings to be yelled at for just trying to do his job, but I'm sure it touched a nerve in Gates to be accused of breaking into his own house.

In a case like this, unless the invective is way, way over the top, I say the cops have to just apologize and move on. (Though some police officers believe they are due way more deference than they actually are.) Haberfeld writes that people are "quicker than lighting" to judge the police when something goes wrong, but that's not my experience. Many people are very sympathetic to the police. If anything, I think that the police probably get slightly more benefit of the doubt than is reasonable.

We may never know exactly what happened, and I'm not sure how important any of this really is anyway. I don't know how much information the president had when he made the claim about the police acting stupidly. His assertion seems to have been in the ballpark, but could turn out to be incorrect.


Anonymous Montag said...

not sure how this reflects on the president's comment, but here is an interesting take on the case.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

There is a YouTube video that is a beautiful example of how we should expect our officers to treat overwrought citizens. (It is entitled "Maine Trooper", and if you've not seen it, it is well worth a few minutes of your life.)

Mind you, I don't believe that every officer will always be this calm under such provocation. However, I think it shows what we should expect our law enforcement officers to strive for.

I think we have a reasonable expectation that Officer Crowley would keep his cool under the provocation Prof. Gates offered him. Crowley's actions may been anomalous for him, in which case an apology is called for.

(If instead, Officer Crowley has a habit of arresting people who do not show him the respect he thinks he deserves, then the Cambridge PD needs to tell him to find a new profession.)

Arresting Gates has not helped Crowley. It has not helped Gates. It did not keep the peace (which was not endangered). It did open up a PR nightmare that the Cambridge PD did not need. It was clearly wrong, and (IMHO) it is fairly characterized as a stupid thing to have done.


PS -- I second Montag's recommendation of Henry's post at Crooked Timber.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Myca said...

Perhaps for 'stupid' he ought to have said 'unconstitutional'? As much as some might wish it otherwise, 'saying mean stuff' isn't a crime, and any arrest for it is therefore not valid.


12:11 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...


I pretty much agree with you; based on the police report, Gates was acting like an ass. However, that's not against the law. And the officer's job is to do everything in his power to prevent escalation, and this cop didn't do that.

This post at Mark Kleiman's site seems to agree with what Montag posted:

12:29 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Dr. Gates' conduct up until the time of the arrest, and the arrest itself are two [apparently, to this point] separate issues. To make a wash of it, or a soup of it, is to lose what the president is calling "a teachable moment."

8:35 PM  

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