Monday, June 24, 2024

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas speaks at a Wednesday press conference at police headquarters for the release of a 60-page report resulting from the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley were missing from Wednesday’s press conference.

A 60-page report looking at issues surrounding the July 16 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was released during a press conference Wednesday at Cambridge Police headquarters, with 10 recommendations and a warning: Since it was not written to place blame for the incident, “Readers are cautioned against attempting to read between the lines of this report or interpreting any sentence beyond what it says.” [An analysis of the report is here.]

It is hard not to, although the Cambridge Review Committee report is scrupulous in saying repeatedly that Gates, who is black, and arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, could both have “de-escalated” the six-minute confrontation ending in Gates’ arrest at his Ware Street home.

“The committee believes that Sgt. Crowley did have other options to consider,” the report says, before asking such questions as whether the nature and severity of the violation justifies an arrest and whether arrest is the most effective way to resolve a situation.

In the Gates case, charges were dropped after five days in which, the committee writes, President Barack Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick criticized the arrest and “hearing Cambridge talked about negatively in the national [and international] news media was painful.”

The report also says Police Commissioner Robert Haas “told the CRC that he considers the arrest an aberration that does not reflect how the Police Department sees itself or generally does its job.”

This reflects a change since a July 23 press conference at which Haas said, “I believe Sgt. Crowley acted in a way that is consistent with his training at the department and consistent with national standards of law enforcement protocol,” but the report does not delve into why or how Haas’ perception of the arrest changed. Asked about it during the press conference, Haas repeated only that Crowley acted as he was trained to, but that such a situation is rare in Cambridge. Haas’ prepared statement is here.

“Police have to bear  the greater responsibility,” Haas said in reply to a question from a reporter at the press conference.

“At the end of the day, we do expect the police to be responsible and to take appropriate actions,” confirmed the committee’s chairman, Chuck Wexler, who presented the report after Haas’ opening remarks.

But Haas would not answer why there had been no formal look into the incident by the Professional Standards division. OIn Wednesday, Haas declined to clarify and instead filed out with other city officials as the event was declared over.

The report doesn’t look at discrepancies in Crowley’s arrest report, despite saying that “police chiefs note that the information they receive in the first minutes or hours following an incident often is incorrect,” and, like Haas, doesn’t address the lack of investigation by Professional Standards. The report seems to undermine the concept of such internal affairs investigations by saying

The Cambridge Review Committee was not charged with conducting a definitive fact-finding regarding the incident of July 16, and has not attempted to do so. The committee feels strongly that such an inquiry would likely prove fruitless.

The $210,000 panel — made up of volunteers, including three Cambridge residents, except for community liaison Jennifer Flagg, who is being paid $130,000 for a year’s work — has titled the report “Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities.” It focuses on “procedural justice,” de-escalating conflicts, police discretion in arrests and police recruitment and training.

Only one page of the report looks at laws concerning the crime with which Gates was charged, disorderly conduct.

Crowley went to Gates’ home on a 911 call of a potential break-in, but after he determined Gates was the legal occupant of the house and alone inside it, he arrested Gates, according to his report, for “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place [that] served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.”

Although it was stressed that the arrest  was really a “conflict between procedural justice and tactical considerations,” Wexler didn’t reject the element of race, saying, “You can’t take race off the table, you can’t take class off the table, you can’t take police authority off the table  … race is part of it. I don’t think race is the No. 1 factor,” and it was to this that Crowley spoke in a statement posted on the police department’s website:

“I certainly don’t expect anyone to fully understand the dynamics of the encounter when they weren’t there, but I was pleased that the committee took the time to speak with me and give my account of the arrest. No one that knows me thought that the arrest was based on race in any way.  Arrests are based strictly on behavior. I’ve learned a lot through this process and I continue to be committed to the city of Cambridge, my responsibilities as a police officer and father, and my dedication to teaching fellow officers about the need for balancing tolerance and safety. I hope that everyone can respect my decision to put this event behind me and not discuss it anymore. I do not want my family to have to go through what they did last summer.”

Neither he nor  Gates were at the press conference — nor Gates’ representative and Harvard friend, law professor Charles Ogletree, who has published a book about the incident and its ramifications for the country. Gates was aware of the findings, it was announced, but had no statement. A statement by Ogletee was also available on the department’s website.

The press conference, attended by some 35 members of the media that included camera operators broadcasting live to the Web, is sure to renew interest in a matter that never quite disappeared from the discourse of city officials and residents. It is almost a year since the arrest.

The report was issued, after a series of missed deadlines, by the 12-member Cambridge Review Committee, announced July 27 but formed officially in September after an international furor over the arrest and given a five-month mandate by Haas and City Manager Robert W. Healy. “to move ahead [and] help us determine what lessons can be learned.”

Some of the findings of the committee, such as the need to improve training, are already being implemented, Haas said. He also identified it as problematic that “officers are taught safety is paramount in every action” because that concern for safety can cause friction in interactions with the public, and he said that contrary to current teaching, officers cannot treat everyone alike; they must learn how to treat different people differently “and be more versatile.”

The committee’s recommendations, for Cambridge and elsewhere, are to

  • Make police recognize the importance of “procedural justice” and make the public understand “the complexities and inherent dangers” police face.
  • Train police in de-escalation of conflicts.
  • Get police to adopt specific policies guiding officers in exercising their discretion to arrest or not arrest someone.
  • Make “additional efforts” to include members of the community in policing initiatives, to help them understand the stress police feel and understand how they act. This includes creating a Police Commissioner’s Advisory Board from members of the community, although some of the stated goals of the board could be accomplished from within the existing citizen oversight panel in Cambridge, the Police Review and Advisory Board. Among other things, the board could “help spread correct information” about an incident. Also, to “reach out” to academic leaders and involve them in local government activities.
  • Work better with university police departments.
  • Have police departments develop programs to help citizens better understand policing — distinct from the inclusion of members of the community in policing initiatives already suggested.
  • Identify the best officer candidates and develop a strategy to recruit and train them.
  • Share “accurate information about incidents that generate great public interest.”
  • Continually monitor research and “best practices” training for police.
  • Hold community forums “to encourage open discussions,” although focused on a single topic at a time to be clear “These types of forums are not open meetings in which residents are invited to speak out on any topic.”