Best Defense

It’s interesting how so many defenders of the Cambridge Police Department are arguing that there’s nothing wrong with the officer’s conduct because he would have arrested Gates even if he hadn’t been black.

Gates' mugshotI think we’re entitled to doubt whether he really would have been as ready to arrest a non-black Gates – but OK, let’s stipulate that that’s so. What the hell kind of defense is that? “He’s not a racist, because he treats whites like crap too!”

Whatever his motivations, Officer Crowley (any relation to Aleister, incidentally?) should have dropped the case and departed as soon as he determined that the “intruder” was in his own home. (Note that Crowley himself has said, “I really didn’t want to have to take such a drastic action because I knew it was going to bring a certain amount of attention, unwanted attention, on me,” which shows that he knew the man he was arresting was not a burglar.)

Assume that Gates behaved in a “confrontational” manner; assume, if you like, that he did so in a way that went beyond what the situation warranted (though this seems far from obvious even according to the officer’s version of the story). So what? There’s no evidence that Gates aggressed against Crowley; his only “crime” was failing to kowtow to the superior authorita conveyed by Crowley’s blue costume. (And if Gates weren’t a famous person, I doubt the charges would have been dropped.) But while the American public is willing – though, alas, just barely – to be dragged into a conversation about the possibility that cops might be systematically abusive toward particular races, the idea that they might be systematically abusive, period, is still outside the bounds of polite discourse.

Quick Addendum:

Another argument I’ve heard is that Crowley’s conduct couldn’t have been racially motivated because he leads anti-racial-profiling seminars and once gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a black athlete. This “but some of my best friends are …” argument misses the point. People with consciously antiracist convictions can still be guilty of relying on racist assumptions in their conduct; that’s how prejudice works. (And of course the same applies to sexism, statism, homophobia, and so on.)

Addendum #2:

See also Charles’ post.

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48 Responses to Best Defense

  1. Scott Bieser July 25, 2009 at 8:30 pm #

    Unfortunately the American public has been programmed by thousands of hours or “copaganda” shows to regard the police as almost uniformly heroic, if not angelic, and the only thing standing between us and violent chaos.

    It is the Curse of Quinn Martin.

  2. Neil Parille July 25, 2009 at 9:04 pm #

    I’m not sure what to make of the police officer’s conduct, but I find it interesting that apparently the first words from Gate were that he was a Harvard professor (big deal) and the cop was a racist.

    So apparently profiling in reverse.

    • Roderick July 25, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

      Maybe so (Gates and the officer disagree about that). But profiling someone who’s free to walk away and profiling someone you have the legal power to assault and kidnap are not comparable.

  3. Stewart July 25, 2009 at 9:24 pm #

    Great post–I’ll be passing this one around.

    • Brandon July 25, 2009 at 9:29 pm #

      Please use pingbacks for this kind of reply. It looks like spam, and might be deleted if I feel like it.

  4. Brandon July 25, 2009 at 9:41 pm #

    I read the account on written by the cop. If the cop is right, Gates is insane. He instantly began screaming after the cop spoke to him. Now, that is assuming the cop’s account is accurate, which it isn’t, and neither is Gates’ account. If anybody thinks there’s such a thing as an unbiased report, see a movie called “Rashomon“.
    This is a Canadian sentiment, but I can’t see anyone around here behaving the way Gates supposedly did. We’d do exactly what the cop wanted. I was once pulled over with an expired license plate sticker (hadn’t got around to buying a new one for $74), invalid driver’s license, invalid insurance (wrong address in both cases), and admitted it all to the cop without her asking any of this. She gave me some instructions on how to update the info and let me go without the fines. But that’s Canada, and I’m not crazy (I wouldn’t drag someone’s mother into an argument).

    • Gary Chartier July 25, 2009 at 10:04 pm #

      That may be Brandon–we needn’t regard the behavior of Gates-as-described-by-the-cop as exemplary. But so what? I don’t get to use force against you because you’re rude, impolite, incoherent, etc. Neither, therefore, does anyone else, whether or not she or he wears a badge or not.

      • Brandon July 25, 2009 at 10:14 pm #

        I never said it was justified, but I don’t find it surprising that engaging in a screaming match with a cop would get someone arrested no matter their race.

        • Mike D. July 25, 2009 at 10:19 pm #

          Right, but as Gary said, “So what?” I don’t think the outrage being expressed at this case (at least by libertarians) is based on the results being atypical. Rather, the results are very much typical of how government police react in situations like this. In fact, that’s a large part of the problem. Government police very often (more often than not?) violate the rights of innocent people. Merely pointing out that this “should be expected” does nothing to negate the fact that it is unethical.

  5. b-psycho July 25, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

    It sucks that the racial aspect of this is completely shoving aside discussion of the police-as-authoritarian-assholes part.

    Of course someone mistaken for a burglar while entering their own home is going to be angry, why is vocally making ones displeasure at that known even remotely an arrestable offense?

    • Otto Kerner July 25, 2009 at 11:46 pm #

      I agree that you shouldn’t be arrested for getting angry at a cop, but why is it “of course” that someone would be angry over being mistaken for an intruder? If someone thought somebody was trying to break into my house, I wouldn’t want them to just ignore it. If it was me all along, then all that happened is that a police officer stops by and asks me a few questions. I don’t see anything to be angry about. I guess I could get angry thinking, “If I did get angry, you’d might arrest me just for being angry, which isn’t a good reason, you bastard!” but that makes me a little dizzy thinking about it.

    • Neverfox July 26, 2009 at 12:27 am #

      Of course someone mistaken for a burglar while entering their own home is going to be angry, why is vocally making ones displeasure at that known even remotely an arrestable offense?

      Well, one argument that I’ve heard is that Gates’ behavior and the gathering crowd would be enough to make the arrest legitimate under the logic of “threat to incite a riot”. There are some libertarians who take inciting a riot as a legitimate form of aggression in the right context (for example Stephan Kinsella, contra Rothbard and Block, argues that intentionally using a crowd as a means would count). The question then become is the context right? Was it reasonable for the officer to assume that Gates’ behavior intended to draw a violent public response. From what I can tell, I don’t think so. Of course, one might press the point that incitement can be negligent but I’m not sure it makes sense to have a category of potentially negligent for something so indirect.

      Of course, a growing crowd seems to me to be exactly what a well-functioning legal system should welcome for the accountability that it provides; it keeps all activity above board and on the record. Think of how often the police try to stop being filmed or watched by passersby. Also, the arrest itself could incite ill-will with a crowd sympathetic to the “perp” (after all isn’t that what the cop is claiming he is worried about?), so unless the police are planning to arrest themselves, it sounds like an open-ended excuse.

  6. Vichy July 25, 2009 at 11:31 pm #

    The police are the most useless, and offensive, branch of the government. They’re all Sir Humphrey Applebys with guns – whatever happens, it’s always YOUR fault. And if, by some miracle, it’s not – well, it’s not theirs either.

  7. Kevin Carson July 26, 2009 at 2:01 am #

    It’s quite possible that Gates was being something of an asshole. But as Roderick, Gary and several others have said, so what? The cop figured out the guy really was in his own home, and it was a mistaken call. And I seriously doubt the cop felt in danger from an aging college professor with a cane. And the point is, Gates was being an asshole toward an intruder in his own friggin’ house, which he has every right to do. So all we’re left with, as a defense of the cop, is that he had some superior right to respect and deference over and above what he would have been entitled to as an ordinary human being, and Gates displayed insufficient obsesiance to the aura of majesty that surrounds the state’s servants. If an ordinary non-uniformed stranger wanders into my house in the mistaken belief that he’s protecting the owner against a burglary, and I scream at him, I’m within my rights. But when the stranger bears the mystical authority of a uniform and badge, i cease to have any rights in my own home. As R.A. Wilson predicted years ago, it has become unlawful to resist even unlawful arrest, because there is–to mix my allusions–one law for the lion and one for the lamb.

    • Gary Chartier July 26, 2009 at 7:40 am #

      Right—and it’s that mystical authority that’s really at issue here. In my local paper yesterday, I saw a story noting that cops react differently to verbal challenges, insults, etc.: some take such behavior in stride, while others “have zero tolerance.” But it seemed, at least at first glance, as if the article operated from the premise that, if cops did choose to “tolerate” other people’s exercise of their free speech rights, this was some kind of noblesse oblige on their part–that of course in principle they had every right to attack and confine people who didn’t kow-tow to them sufficiently. That’s the really troubling message here: don’t you dare stand up to a cop!

  8. Neil Parille July 26, 2009 at 5:39 am #

    I do not believe the cop was an ‘intruder.’ He entered the property because he received a call that 2 men were breaking into the house. When he got there he saw only 1 man (Gates). So he had to do an investigation to make sure that the man he met was not an intruder and that no one in the house was being hurt by the other potential intruder.

    So I think Gates was under an obligation to cooperate (or at least not intefere) so that the cop could do his investigation and leave if the call was a mistake.

    What I find interesting is that there had apparently been break-ins in the area and Gates’ door didn’t close because of a previous break-in attempt. You’d think given that scenario Gates wouldn’t jump to conclusions and would, on the contrary, be grateful that a neighbor called the police.

    • Gary Chartier July 26, 2009 at 7:43 am #

      I’m not sure what the source of Gate’s obligation to cooperation or not interfere in this case would be. But let’s say there was one? Again, I’m not sure what follows. By the time the arrest took place, the officer knew, apparently, that no further investigation was necessary, that Gates was, indeed, the occupant of the home rather than an intruder. So, unless I’ve mis understood the situation, it seems clear that the failure to cooperate (actively or passively) wasn’t the basis of the arrest, but rather Gates’s purported belligerence (=legitimate exercise of his free speech rights).

      • Stephan Kinsella July 26, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

        Gary: “I’m not sure what the source of Gate’s obligation to cooperation or not interfere in this case would be.”

        Well, as a statist he has consented to what it does to him–arguably. No?

        • Gary Chartier July 26, 2009 at 6:04 pm #

          Touché, Stephan, though I have no idea what Gates’s considered views of state authority are. Since I think his statism is mistaken, I think he doesn’t have the relevant sort of obligation, objectively speaking, but you’re quite right that he might be acting in a manner inconsistent with some of his own views by not acknowledging the authority of a state agent.

        • Stephan Kinsella July 26, 2009 at 10:39 pm #

          Gary, next time, say, “well played,” instead of touche’. It’s a bit more hip.

        • Gary Chartier July 27, 2009 at 7:58 am #

          Hip? Don’t all the cool kids say “hep”?

  9. Neil Parille July 26, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    He was arrested for disorderly conduct, stemming from his conduct at the end. This looks excessive to me since, as you point out, the investigation was over.

    If the officers are telling the truth, it looks like Gates was egging them on. I hope they release the tapes.

    • Gary Chartier July 26, 2009 at 10:35 am #

      The tapes would certainly help, but, either way, egging schmegging: unless “egging them on” means “creating a reasonable apprehension of physical harm” (i.e., “assaulting”), I don’t see the issue. You can “egg me on” as much as you like without making it OK for me to handcuff and confine you.

  10. iceberg July 26, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    Those who know me call me Craw-ley; Those who don’t bow before my authorita’ call me Crau-ley.

  11. Mike July 26, 2009 at 12:28 pm #

    In the officer’s report, and one of the other officers said this as well, he said that Gates was acting oddly, which is an understatement if the details in his report are accurate.

    I ultimately don’t think that officer should have arrested Gates, but put yourself in his shoes. And for the moment I’ll assume that his report is basically accurate. The latter part of is, certainly, is attested to by the other officers who were there.

    Gates is definitely the legal occupant of the house. But he seems oddly argumentive. He gets especially abusive when you ask if anyone else is there. Is this a domestic violence situation? Are there any restraining orders against him?

    Again, I think in the end he should not have arrested Gates, but I can certainly see why he didn’t just leave after Gates Ided himself.

    • Roderick July 26, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

      I can’t see that. Whether or not Gates’s response was warranted, there was nothing especially mysterious about it — under the circumstances it was pretty damn obvious why he might be responding that way. I can’t see that the cop had any reasonable grounds to initiate a fishing expedition.

      I have no idea whether the officer’s report is accurate — this being a situation in which each side has an incentive to portray their own behaviour as having been reasonable and the other’s as unreasonable — but the fact that it was “attested to by the other officers who were there” doesn’t really add much weight, given the notorious tendency of cops to cover up for each other.

  12. Mike July 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    Gate’s reaction was either warranted or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, then it is mysterious. Again, all the police officer knows is that he had a report of two men breaking into a house.

    Gates himself said he appreciated the woman who called the police, noted his house had been broken into before, that the reason the door was jammed was that it looked like it had been jimmied and even said he had some expensive things in there. If he’s grateful to the woman who called, why did he react to vehemently to the officer who responded?

    By Gates own account, he was immediately defensive. The officer asked him to step outside and he refused. He says the officer asked him an offensive question and he told him it was none of his business. (The officer says the question was Is anyone else here? A reasonable question given that he’d been told two men were brekaing in). Gates says he went to get his ID, and the officer followed him in without permission, and that’s when Gates says asked him if he was treating him this way because he was black.

    That’s Gates own account and it seems to me unwarranted and mysterious. My reation would be “Geez, officer. I’m glad you are here. It looks like my door may have been tampered with. I just got in and I haven’t had time to see if they got in or stole anything.”

    • Roderick July 26, 2009 at 2:43 pm #

      Gate’s reaction was either warranted or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, then it is mysterious.

      Again, I don’t see that at all. Is it really surprising or mysterious that someone — especially a member of a minority that is used to being negatively profiled — might overreact to being accused of burglary when entering his own house? Whether a reaction is unwarranted and whether it’s mysterious are two different things. (For example, I think the officer’s reaction was unwarranted, but in a culture that encourages people in blue costumes to regard themselves as entitled to compel others’ deference, I don’t find it at all mysterious.)

    • Roderick July 26, 2009 at 2:55 pm #

      The officer asked him to step outside and he refused.

      Which is broadly in line with standard legal advice. (And given that when he finally did step out on the porch he was assaulted and kidnapped, he was wise to refuse.)

      • Otto Kerner July 26, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

        Is it? I understand that it’s recommended and very wise to avoid talking to the police without a lawyer if there’s any chance they might consider you a suspect in a crime. It’s also smart to avoid consenting to a search if you’ve got something to hide. But, is it really smart to refuse to comply with the police even if it’s just to explain that no crime was committed (i.e., Gates knows for sure that there’s no way the state can build a case against him for breaking and entering or for domestic violence, since those things just plain didn’t happen). My advice to him (assuming that his goal is not to get arrested) would have been to be as solicitous as he can manage and speak to the police very slowly and calmly, much the way one would handle a strange dog one met on the sidewalk. If I have the wrong idea about the smart way to react in this situation, please let me know if you have a link to better advice; since I might find myself in Gates’ position some day.

        • Gary Chartier July 26, 2009 at 6:02 pm #

          I think your advice is smart and the strange-dog analogy is on target. I just think it’s deeply disturbing that we should all find ourselves in a situation in which some people in our society can use force to insist on behavior that the rest of us can only politely request.

  13. Roderick July 26, 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    Here are Gates’ report and Crowley’s report of the incident. Assume for the sake of argument that everything Crowley says is true and everything Gates says (where it differs) is a lie. It follows that Gates was arrested for — yelling. That’s it. Yelling.

    • Roderick July 26, 2009 at 3:20 pm #

      Plus, by his own report, Crowley had already decided to leave, and he arrested Gates only because Gates was still yelling and there were passersby watching. It sounds to me as though he arrested Gates to save face, because if he left without arresting him it would look as though Gates had made him back down.

      If Gates was indeed yelling (which he denies — he says his weak throat as a result of recent illness made him incapable of yelling), I grant that it may have been imprudent on his part — but arresting him for it is clearly a mere smackdown for impertinence, and the officer’s saying that he was “forced” to do it is insulting to our intelligence.

      • Mike July 26, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

        I’ve said twice that the officer should not have arrested Gates. I’ll say it a third time.

        And I’ll say again that Gates’s reaction was unwarranted, inexplicable and would reasonably arouse the suspicion of anyone who dies not have a kneejerk anti-police attitude.

        Again, he has gone out of his way to say the woman who called the police acted appropriately. If she acted appropriately, if someone could reasonably believe that someone was breaking into his house, if indeed he believed someone may have broken into his house in his absence, why did he immediately react defensively with the officer.

        You say that refusing to go outside when the officer asked is standard legal advice, please cite the source on that. The reason the officer did not want to go inside was that he didn’t know who was there. And Gates should have wanted his interactions with the police outside, too, if he feared problems, as one of my uncles said “It never hurts to have witnesses.”

        He overreacted because he’s black? I find that offensive.

        I’ve spoken to several friends and relatives, who have far more personal experience with racial profiling than I, and probably more than Gates, and none of them understand his reaction. None. One told me that, an officer’s tone of voice can turn reasonable questions, which is what he thought the officer was asking, into harrassment. But Gates never alleged that.

        The officer clearly did not handle the situation well. One point of disagreement is whether the officer IDed himself when Gates asked. The officer says he told gave him his name. But from what I’ve read, Massachusetts law says he was required to give him an ID card, and I’ve read officers who work in states where that isn’t required say that it’s a good practice that goes a long way towards calming people.

        • Brandon July 26, 2009 at 6:07 pm #

          Wait. Are you saying the officer should not have arrested Gates?

        • Roderick July 27, 2009 at 9:25 pm #

          He overreacted because he’s black? I find that offensive.

          Well, it’s not what I said, but feel free to be offended by things I might have said in some parallel universe.

        • Anon73 July 28, 2009 at 2:32 am #

          The parallel universe where you’re the statist host of “The Roderick Long Show”, had an oxycontin addiction and got kicked out casting for the NFL? 🙂

  14. dennis July 26, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    Anyone would have been arrested by the policeman, and no, that isn’t okay. All laws which can be used as a pretext to arrest someone for hurting a policeman’s feelings should be reversed immediately.

  15. Otto Kerner July 26, 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    It occurred to me that the thing that bugs me about the “anti-Cambridge-police-department” side in this whole argument is that, in all of the mainstream comment on this issue, I have seen zero interest in talking about the underlying systemic issues of why the police can treat people like this in our current political environment. That issue, which is the only real issue here, does not appear to exist for them. For crying out loud, we’ve got Mr. Obama, the man who gives orders to the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the United States military, complaining about the misdemeanor arrest of a celebrity! (That doesn’t change the value of a specific opinion of his, but there’s an issue of perspective here). On the other hand, the “pro-Cambridge-PD” side obviously doesn’t care about the underlying issue, since they are in favour of the “tumultuois behaviour” arrest. So, it’s really basically the same problem on both sides: they’re all statists.

    • Gary Chartier July 26, 2009 at 6:04 pm #

      Yes, Otto–the discussion of race here obscures the underlying, hideous reality of arrogant state power.

  16. Euripides July 26, 2009 at 5:58 pm #

    It is not recommended to go outside as the police can then use any people outside as an excuse to arrest you on a nebulous public order charge. (i.e. inciting a riot)

  17. Roderick July 27, 2009 at 10:04 am #

    Two man-bites-dog stories:

    Nonwhite feminist defends Crowley.

    Police chief criticises Crowley.

    • dennis July 27, 2009 at 6:10 pm #

      The feminist’s blog entry doesn’t make Crowley look any better. His “don’t disrespect the cops” attitude is disgusting.

  18. Roderick July 27, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    Latest update: this piece argues that Crowley’s audio report contradicts his claim that Gates was yelling.

  19. Jake July 28, 2009 at 11:15 am #


    Very well written. I will be linking this from my blog to which I had similar comments.


  20. MBH July 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    I hope this can receive some attention. As a resident of Mobile, I’m amazed that no one says a word about it. This man was in the bathroom of a Dollar General for half an hour before pepper spray was used in his stall. He’s deaf, so he couldn’t distinguish the police demands from “the devil [trying] to come in.” Interesting…

  21. Ben K August 3, 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    Probably no relation to Aleister, who had this to say about race:

    “I think that perhaps I have already written enough—at least enough to start you thinking on the right lines. And mark well this! The submergence of the individual in his class means the end of all true human relations between men. Socialism means war. When the class moves as a class, there can be no exceptions.”



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