Cambridge Police Officer Sgt. James Crowley won’t apologize for responding to a call of a break-in and subsequently arresting Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. on a charge of disorderly conduct. He says he was doing what he’s paid to do and he’s right—Crowley’s a public servant doing a hard, thankless job. I don’t think he should apologize for that. And I don’t see the bigger point of Skip and Crowley duking it out in the court of public opinion because we’ll never get a resolution that way.
We will be too busy chasing the coverage to learn the lessons here and not for nothing Crowley is outgunned and under-manned for this war of words. Skip’s arrest, at the root, was an ugly miscommunication ignited by prejudice and presumption, fueled by egos and complicated by race. Two disparate opinions just divide and discourage dialogue, the thing we need the most here. I told you up front that this is not the best case of police misconduct I have ever seen. It’s not even close.
The thing is, nobody’s an angel here. Everyone is wrong and everyone is right-that is why this is a classic American moment. It’s surprisingly—outrageously—pedestrian. It happens every day. There are lessons to go around and an apology from Crowley for playing his Cop Card low and hard would douse the fires of outrage and really help spark conversation that will make this a “teachable moment,” whatever the eff that means.
President Obama did a great disservice to the morale of police officers everywhere when he commented on this thorny matter while admitting he didn’t have all the facts at his recent presser. Going in on the Beantown cops for acting “stupidly” for throwing his buddy in the slammer smacks of ugly, Ivy League, country-club cronyism. He should have begged off until which time he could have learned more.
Of course, he had to say something. But he didn’t have to go there. Because these same stupid cops may be charged with looking out for him one day, and as overzealous as Crowley may have been, he might be the kind of earnest cop Obama will need on security detail. I just think cops have it hard enough without the president trying to Monday-morning quarterback from a few hundred miles down the pike.
Crowley should apologize for the misunderstanding, but not for the arrest itself, because he was party to a series of events that not only caused discord in a community, but across this nation. He made an arrest on a penny-ante charge that didn’t rate: He played the cop card and took the low road, and it makes other cops-good cops that would have let bad behavior slide in the name of good relations-look bad. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should and I’m of the opinion that Crowley could have and should have let Skip’s behavior go, no matter how “tumultuous and abusive” he thought it was. Because that’s the job: You take crap off the public. You don’t like it? Ride a desk. You gonna walk the beat, you take the heat.
While it’s true that civilians have to respect the police, they have a similar obligation to give good customer service. As Dr. Lester Spence opines in the Barbershop today, the police work for us and should be accountable to us. We should not be scared of the police. But many of us are because we’ve seen cops make mistakes before, and black people always seem to get shot hundreds of times behind these “OOPS-see, DAY-See”-encounters and are never charged. You’d think that part of police sensitivity training would review the relationship police have had with people of color historically, so that might inform their interactions and help them navigate the irritated, suspicious attitudes they are most likely to encounter when they interact with us.
Before Skip orders a dashiki, lets his pants start sagging and gets his hair braided, maybe he’ll take a seat on the porch of his summer home at Martha’s Vineyard and have another glass of lemonade and consider working with law enforcement to put some perspective into their training that may prevent Crash moments like this from happening to the Cousin Pookie, too. But me and Pookie? Well, we know better.
I have been arrested once (charges dimissed) and detained once for disorderly conduct for exactly the same reason Skip was—talking back to police. Was it because I was black? Well, being black sure didn’t help, I’ll say that much. And even though you and I have seen some white folks curse cops up and down the back of Officer Krupke with no fear of reprisal, you better know that black people go to jail for that type of thing. Cops will play their card QUICK, if provoked.