“Missed Opportunities”

A report on the interaction between Cambridge police Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates finds “misunderstandings and failed communications” on both sides.

The report of the Cambridge Review Committee, appointed to investigate the circumstances that led to the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley last July 16 at Gates's rented home on Ware Street, was released on June 30. The 60-page document, “Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities,” concludes—in language notably free of the heightened rhetoric about race and the glaring publicity that led to the “beer summit” with Gates, Crowley, Vice President Joseph Biden, and President Barack Obama at the White House—that the incident was “avoidable” and that both principals “missed opportunities to ‘ratchet down’ the situation and end it peacefully.” The 12-member committee, chaired by Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, and including experts from across the nation, found that the events escalated because of “misunderstandings and failed communications between the two men. For various reason, each man reported feeling a certain degree of fear of the other,” as Crowley responded to a 911 emergency call about an apparent breaking and entering, and as Gates was “wary—of the police” and “did not recognize Sergeant Crowley’s concerns or why the Sergeant wanted him to step outside his own home.”

According to the report’s “Findings”:

[O]nce he saw Professor Gates’s identity, Sergeant Crowley could have taken greater pains to explain the uncertainty and potential dangers of responding to a serious crime-in-progress call. Perhaps he could have expressed why, in the early stages of such a call, police officers must focus on the safety of the public and their own safety, and why his need to assess and mitigate any risks may have caused him to adopt a seemingly abrupt tone.

On the other hand, Professor Gates also told the Cambridge Review Committee that in retrospect, he would not have done anything differently, except that he would not have followed Sergeant Crowley outside of his house when the officer was moving to leave the scene. The Committee believes that Professor Gates, like Sergeant Crowley, missed opportunities to de-escalate the encounter. Professor Gates could have tried to understand the situation from the point of view of a police officer responding to a 911 call about a break-in in progress, and could have spoken respectfully to Sergeant Crowley and accommodated his request to step outside at the beginning of their encounter.

The committee found that although the event was “avoidable,” it was not “unjustified from a legal standpoint or in terms of police policy.” That said, it questioned whether an outcome that conforms to policy is necessarily the best outcome to such situations, and focused on means of improving police-community communications and relations, based on “shared responsibilities,” in the interest of effecting better service to the public.

In a statement released with the report, Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas said that "the current model of policing did not adequately address the reality of interacting with highly diverse communities," because officers' emphasis on safety above all other factors "can interfere with the officer's ability to reach a successful outcome" as their actions are "often misinterpreted…and thus erode confidence and legitimacy." The department, he said, has undertaken training aimed at enhancing officers' understanding of how they are perceived as they deliver their services; conversations with the MIT and Harvard police department to effect collaboration, in part through joint in-service training; and analysis of the decision to arrest where officers confront disorderly conduct. The department is also forming a community advisory group.

"It is not enough that our data shows that we don't discriminate," Haas said. "Only by developing those relationships throughout the Cambridge community can we develop the legitimacy required to establish community confidence in the police." (He referred to an internal analysis of arrests for disorderly conduct, which found "no disparities by race," as well as a review of disorderly arrests from 2004 to 2009 undertaken by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and released earlier in the month, that found "no evidence of racial profiling" in Cambridge police actions.)

Crimson coverage of the report is available here. Boston Globe coverage is available here.

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