‘No racial profiling’ in Henry Gates arrest, watchdog group says

By Daniel Tencer
Thursday, June 17, 2010 20:12 EDT
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An investigation into last summer’s arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has found “no evidence” of racial profiling in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department.

But the study suggests that police forces may be using “disorderly conduct” charges as a way of muzzling free speech.

Gates, who is black, was arrested last July while he was trying to enter his own home, having lost the key. The officer, James Crowley, arrested Gates for disorderly conduct after Gates reportedly yelled at the officer and accused him of racial profiling. The disorderly conduct charge was quickly dropped by prosecutors.

The case focused attention on racism in policing, and even caused controversy for President Barack Obama when he told a press conference that police had “acted stupidly” in making the arrest.

Now an investigation from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting has concluded that there is “no evidence of racial profiling” in the Cambridge police department.

“The most common factor linking people who are arrested in Cambridge for disorderly conduct is that they were allegedly screaming or cursing in front of police,” NECIR’s report states.

NECIR reports:

Of the 392 adults arrested for disorderly conduct [from 2004 to 2009], 57 percent were white and 34 percent were black. That racial breakdown almost exactly mirrored the racial composition of the population that Cambridge police investigated for disorderly conduct, the NECIR analysis shows.

Cambridge is 68 percent white and 12 percent black, the latest U.S. Census data shows.

But multiple racial profiling experts said the fairest way to analyze the Cambridge police department’s conduct was to compare the racial makeup of those charged to that of those investigated, and not to the racial makeup of the overall population.

But the study suggests that, if Gates’ arrest wasn’t racially motivated, it may have been motivated by a desire to silence him.

“Disorderly [conduct] is often used when people do something to piss off the cops,” the study quotes defense attorney Daniel beck as saying. “Sometimes, they’re just being a drunken jerk yelling. Often, they’re challenging the cops’ authority.”

Cambridge police chief Robert C. Haas disagrees with this assessment, and argues that police officers use disorderly conduct arrests to de-escalate situations.

“You have a situation where you are trying to stop behavior, and entangled in that behavior you have people saying things,” he said. “It’s the behavior officers are trying to deal with and it’s the behavior that officers are trying to stop that they believe really creates social disharmony. They have an obligation to stop it.”

While Cambridge police will likely be cheered by the investigation’s findings, the Gates arrest last year nevertheless harmed the reputation of Boston-area police forces. One officer on the Boston police force was suspended after sending out an e-mail calling Gates a “banana-eating jungle monkey.”

Following the Gates arrest, the city of Cambridge set up an independent commission to offer “lessons learned” from the incident. Though that report was expected to be ready this spring, it still hasn’t been released and no release date has been set, reports the Harvard Crimson.

Correction: The group that conducted the study is the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, not Investigating Reporting. The name has been corrected in this edition.

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