Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas, right, at the June 20 release of a report in which he says a police sergeant’s arrest of a Harvard professor on charges of disorderly conduct was “an aberration.” But the sergeant was investigated fully by a police Professional Standards unit. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“Intensive” investigations cleared the sergeant who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of wrongdoing, police have said, but documents received by Cambridge Day through a Freedom of Information request show the investigating was anything but thorough or vigorous.

Immediately after the July 16, 2009, arrest, Police Commissioner Robert Haas sent officers to Gates’ home on Ware Street to interview witnesses to the arrest. Police spoke with five people, only one of whom had seen Gates’ arrest on disorderly conduct charges by Sgt. James Crowley, according to documents from the case file. Crowley had been called in to investigate whether Gates’ home had been broken into.

The Police Department has no record of investigations or reviews of Crowley’s behavior that day by the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association or Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association, according to an official reply to the FOI request by Kelly A. Downes, legal adviser to the department. Repeated requests to talk to union officials in the months since the arrest were declined.

Still, Alan McDonald, attorney for the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said at a July 24, 2009, press conference: “Earlier this week, the Superior Officers Association, after conducting its own review, issued a press release expressing its full and unqualified support for the actions of Sgt. Crowley … Yesterday we were pleased to learn that after its own intensive investigation, the Cambridge Police Department also expressed its support for Sgt. Crowley.”

Alan McDonald, attorney for the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, speaks at a July 24, 2009, press conference of support for the sergeant.

In that, he was correct. Haas had said at a press conference the previous day: “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.”

The documents in Professional Standards file No. 9005127 are unlikely to have helped Haas determine that.

The entirety of the case file, as provided by Downes only after a city-mandated report was released, is five heavily redacted one-page reports describing the work of three Cambridge officers over three days: that of the arrest and the next; and July 23, 2009, when an officer got the chance to make a follow-up call with a witness.

The officers involved were Lt. Christine Elow, a deputy superintendent who serves as commander of the police department’s Professional Standards unit; Officer Antonio Ayala, also of Professional Standards; and Sgt. Sil Ferreira. They “interviewed witnesses in the immediate aftermath of the incident at the request of the commissioner,” Downes said.

Report details

Elow filed two reports. One was from talking with Lucia Whalen, the woman who brought Crowley to Ware Street with a 911 call but didn’t see the arrest; the other was with a contractor who had been working nearby for Harvard and did. The conversation with Whalen took place the day of the arrest; the conversation with the contractor took place the next day.

Ferreira filed one report from the day of the arrest, when he talked to the elderly woman who asked Whalen to call 911 for her. The woman, whose name was redacted by police all but one time on the FOI documents, had moved next door to Gates only five days earlier. She went back inside her apartments before the arrest and did not see it.

Ayala filed two reports, the first with the driver of Gates’ limousine on the day of the arrest. The driver said he left before police arrived. Ayala’s second report, from July 23, 2009, described his conversation with two contractors who had been working at 11 Ware St. during the arrest. One said he hadn’t seen or heard anything. The other said he didn’t remember the incident and had already spoken with Elow.

Details of interest from the reports are scant.

The elderly woman was waiting for her car to be delivered when she saw two people with suitcases trying to get into the house next door, Ferreira’s report says. She “was amazed that they were still trying to get into the house even though they could see her watching them,” and she went on watching for about 10 minutes before “one of the males forced the door open by pushing it in with his shoulder.” When she saw a woman with a cell phone pass by — Whalen — the elderly woman asked her to call police.

Gates’ Boston Car Co. limousine driver, who drove the professor home from Logan International Airport after a return trip from Shanghai, confirmed to Ayala that while helping Gates with the sticking front door, “he did see an old lady next door who had been looking at them when they were trying to enter the house.” He and Gates had tried the front door, then the back, then gone around to the front again.

Elow’s reports have some things in common: Whalen and the contractor are both said to have heard Gates yelling to police that he was a Harvard professor and asking “why would he break into his own house”; and both describe surprise (or, in Whalen’s case, that she was “a little shocked”) at Gates’ behavior to officers who “never raised their voices, never applied any force and seemed very calm during the interaction.”

Crowley’s own report suggests the arrest of Gates on disorderly conduct charges was justified because his “tumultuous” yelling, even after a warning by Crowley that he was becoming disorderly, “drew the attention of both the police officers and citizens, who appeared surprised and alarmed by Gates’ outbursts.” Elow’s report seems to support this by noting that the contractor “said the commotion was enough for him to stop working and watch the interaction between [Gates] and the officers.”

But, oddly, in a report of five short paragraphs, only two of which contain a description of what happened July 16, 2009, that is essentially repeated information. Elow’s report already said the contractor’s attention was drawn to Gates’ home at 17 Ware St. not by Gates’ yelling, but by “the marked cruisers and several uniformed officers in the area.” Crowley reported calling his dispatcher to report he was with “someone who appeared to be a resident but very uncooperative” and later, after “learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard” asked for more cruisers — belonging to Harvard University police — to come.

A contractor was working at 11 Ware St., Cambridge, at the time of the arrest three addresses away.

The contractor had been working at 11 Ware St., according to police reports. Not only was that work site three addresses away on the same side of the street, but fully enclosed by large, tall buildings; it is the shorter, middle portion of an M-shaped building in which 9 and 13 Ware St. are the portions stretching all the way to the curb. The shape of the building would have made it impossible for the contractor to see Gates and difficult for him to hear Gates without having first been drawn to his house by the multiple police cruisers and officers.

The testimony of these five people was enough to clear Crowley of wrongdoing in the arrest. (The charges against Gates were dropped July 21, 2009, although not expunged, to which McDonald of the police union said “It would have been better to let the matter go forward to a trial so that the truth could have been disclosed.”) No document clarifies the decision, or even mentions Crowley’s police report was read as part of the decision.

“There is no official document ‘clearing’ Sgt. Crowley because there was no complaint filed against him,” Downes said in an Aug. 2 e-mail.

Jennifer Flagg, the community liaison working with the 12-member panel known as the Cambridge Review Community, gave this description in March of a Professional Standards review:

When the Professional Standards unit receives a complaint, it conducts an independent investigation by speaking with the complainant and any officers or relevant parties involved. The average case takes 30 to 60 days to complete, depending on the complexity of the case and availability of witnesses. Once the investigation is concluded, a detective in the Professional Standards Unit will notify the complainant by mail of the findings.

There was never a complainant in the Gates case, she said, although Professional Standards can investigate without a complaint. “These are internally generated investigations and the department conducts them whenever appropriate,” Flagg said.

No answers

Police have been unwilling to name what it was Elow, Ayala and Ferreira did after the Gates arrest. Elow said Feb. 24 that there had not been a Professional Standards investigation into Crowley’s behavior and refused to answer follow-up questions even about the general practices of her department. When Haas was asked “Why no professional standards investigation of Sgt. Crowley after July 16?” almost a year later, upon the June 30 release of the panel’s report about the arrest, he replied, “Well, there was actually — I sent investigators out to the scene to start their investigation immediately after the arrest situation and we started to look at that situation.”

At the end of the press conference, he was asked to clarify his answer — to say, for the record, whether there had been a formal Professional Standards investigation. But Haas and other officials, who had declared the press conference over, walked out without answering.

Upon the release of the CRC report, Haas said the department would be using a “new tool” for use in similar situations that would “guide against making the decision to arrest solely when [officers] believe the offense is simply a challenge of their official authority” and prevent “misuse of their discretionary authority.”

In contrast to his comments shortly after Gates’ arrest, the panel’s report says that “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.”