Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On break-ins and professors

Yesterday, someone who knows that I worked for a California police department back in the 1970s asked me what my thoughts were on the whole Professor Gates business in Cambridge.

I have no clue what happened in Cambridge last week between Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates. Yes, it sounds like police may have over reacted, but on hearing the 911 tapes there may be more to the story.

Our President stepped into the controversy with both feet, even though, 1, he was not there, and 2, he probably has no idea of what police procedures are when one is sent to a breaking and entering in progress call.

So, while I'm not going to weigh in on the Cambridge controversy, let me give you a real life example of why police may have done what they did, from my own experience and those of my former officer colleagues.

When I worked in Atherton* (California) we worked in a very rich environment. Million dollar homes, and remember this was the 1970s, were the norm and the residents were primarily multi-millionaires or even a couple billionaires.

During absences, the residents would leave a "vacation check" at the police department which required officers to check the homes on each shift to make sure they were secure. Early one morning (about 1 a.m.) I was riding with a sergeant and we pulled into a "vacation check" driveway and noticed a side door open that had not been noted as open during the last shift.

We radioed the dispatcher to make sure no one had arrived home early and learned no one had called. Walking through the door with our flashlights we were almost immediately confronted by a man coming down the hall in the dark. The sergeant pulled his weapon and ordered the man to the floor while I radioed for additional help.

Once the lights were turned on we quickly learned that the man we had just spread eagled on the floor at gunpoint was the CEO of a very successful company that if I used the name you would know.

"I was going to call first thing in the morning to tell you I was home," the man said sheepishly. Then he said something about how he really didn't believe that we closely checked the homes.

In the end he learned a lesson and the sergeant and I later shook our heads at how close we came to a more serious situation. Like what if the homeowner mistook us for a burglar and picked up his gun and we saw that first thing as we walked through the door.

So stuff happens.

Also, there were many times in my police career where officers confronted someone in a house where they supposedly lived only to learn that a wife or girlfriend had a restraining order keeping them away due to domestic violence. All that has to be checked out before you simply dismiss a breaking and entering call and move on to the next call.

So when Professor Gates went off about being questioned in his own home, that is understandable. But when Sgt. Crowley insisted on investigating further before dismissing the call as unfounded, to me and other police officers that is also clearly understandable.

Life behind a police windshield or badge, looks much different than it does from the outside.

The best advice I always give people is that when a police officer asks you to do something, even if you think it is outrageous, just go with the flow and deal with the outrageous later.

*Sorry about the wikipedia reference, but only source I could find in a hurry today.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I have loads to say about this story. Mostly because I've been hearing about it non-stop for days on end.

This was the first time in his presidency that i have felt that Obama was out of line. After making it clear that he had a bias in the matter and wasn't fully informed on the full situation, calling the Cambridge PD stupid was a really irresponsible comment. Same thing with our lovely governor Deval Patrick, whose view of reality is obviously skewed: calling a brutal rapist 'humane', upgrading his car and curtains on the state's dime.

Here's how I feel based on the stories I have heard: Both parties overreacted.

Gates refused to identify himself at first and Crowley was responding to the scene on his own. If he felt that the best way to gain control of the situation and to get Gates cooperate was to bring him in, fine. I do, however, struggle with the definition of disorderly conduct. It's vague and I understand that its a discretionary sort of charge. Was Gates being disorderly? Maybe, I don't think that scholars get to act above the law. Should Crowley have walked away once he realized that a man that uses a cane to walk was hardly a threat & wasn't breaking in? Maybe.

And then what if Crowley had only threatened to arrest Gates based on his behaviors, but once Gates calmed down, Crowley decided not to arrest him? Would people then be saying that the CPD were pushovers? Maybe.

I also struggle with the alleged race issue. People of all races are capable of breaking in. Crime does no discriminate. If a white man was refusing to identify himself and was acting out, he likely would have been arrested too. What if Crowley was black, hmm? Obviously no one would have claimed racial profiling in that case. no one mentions that on Gate's application to Yale, he made a statement about 'whitey' judging him. Oddly enough, racism works both ways. It perpetuates itself.


Jim of L-Town said...

Hopefully, everyone learns a lesson out of this, even the Prez.

Good thoughts all, Elin.

Anonymous said...


Always amazes me how many people want to argue or "out tough" a cop.

It's like bringing a knife to a gun fight. You ain't gonna win.

Just be respectful, answer directly, obey if it doesn't put your life in jeopardy.

Cops get twitchy when you get bitchy.