ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside

With some interest, I recently read the Cambridge police department’s report of the recent incident with Professor Gates, as well as Gates’s own version of events at theroot.com and his lawyer’s statement. I was particularly intrigued by the police report from a professional writing standpoint, and the following discussion may serve to demonstrate why.

About a year ago, my wife and I had someone attempt to force the front door of our townhouse while she was home upstairs. The chain on the door stopped the intruder, who fled, and she called me; I came home from the office immediately, and we called the police to report the incident after ascertaining the management company had not sent over someone to do repairs. An officer showed up shortly thereafter.

What I remember most about his visit (the officer’s) was that while standing in the middle of our den, he wrote everything that we said down on a small notepad. This has struck me as an incredibly valuable habit every time that I’ve encountered police; in fact, when I think of the Platonic form of ‘police’, it’s a uniformed officer scribbling on a pad. The habit fosters neutral observation over editorializing, and serves as a memory aid when it’s time to write the report.

With this little tidbit about police note-taking in mind, I used to live in Boston. The area where Professor Gates lives is, well, posh by my standards, within a block of Harvard University, just off Harvard Street, in a mixed-race, highly affluent, tree-lined, intimate neighborhood not known for crime. I also live in a mixed-race neighborhood not known for crime in Memphis, though it is decidedly not affluent.

The incident occurred in full daylight, also, nearly at noon, on a weekday. There are several striking points to be taken from the two versions of events. Gates’s story and Crowley’s are more or less identical right up to Gates’s initial declaration, “No, I will not,” when asked to come out onto the porch, and then they diverge wildly.

According to the police report, Gates is belligerent throughout, though not physically hostile, and indulges himself in constant race-baiting and open threats to use his influence almost immediately. Crowley goes inside the house briefly to check his ID, but ends up retreating from the house as Gates’s voice is too loud to hear his police radio. Once outside, Gates follows him and continues to spout uncomplimentary remarks, whereupon a public scene results, with a fair number of passersby and other cops present. Gates refuses to calm down, and Crowley arrests him after two warnings.

According to Gates, though, Crowley is an ominous presence looking for any excuse to mess with him, and Gates’s oral responses (which are measured and polite as he can manage given the situation) are designed to protect him legally as he feels he has been targeted. Despite the fact that he is in his own home (and suffering from a respiratory infection, no less, which prevents him from raising his voice), he is arrested on his own porch, having broken no laws.

Now the truth is usually somewhere in between with matters like this. There are enough witnesses present to demonstrate that Gates lost his temper and repeatedly insulted, without basis or evidence, a police officer who came to check on his home’s safety. This is never a good idea, regardless of whether you are black or white. The police generally take to yelling at them poorly, as they should. The fellow who is shouting at them one second may pull a knife or a gun in the next second, college professor or not, and police are trained to pacify such situations. As such, they have some legal leeway to arrest you if you repeatedly and openly act aggressively toward them or prevent them from doing their jobs.

There is also, however, ample evidence from Crowley’s report alone – not even considering Gates’s version – that Sgt. Crowley mismanaged the end of the incident. The best move for all involved would have been for him and the other officers present to leave immediately once he had confirmed Gates’s identity. There was nothing to be gained from arresting Gates. As is, it appears that he let Gates bait him, which led to an awkward, unnecessary arrest and a political brouhaha. It’s little wonder that the department dropped all charges. So when President Obama said Crowley acted “stupidly,” I think that’s what he meant. But then again,  it’s hard to tell from the report exactly how threatening Gates was, so we are back in Rashomon-land where everyone naturally is giving an account that puts them in a good light.

The lack of community was evident. Namely, Gates’s alert neighbor didn’t recognize him in broad daylight in a very cramped and intimate Boston neighborhood, and Crowley, responding to the call, didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to recognize him either; there is also no neighbor coming forward in the police report or Gates’s version to say, “By Jove, that’s Professor Gates, recently returned from India! Unhand him at once, constable!” It’s strange how we live in such an anonymous society, not knowing our neighbors or our police. I think this is more of the problem in this case than any racism.

Oh, yes, my ultimate point, which was about narrative – the Cambridge Police Department and its union has controlled the narrative of this incident in the press strongly. The police report is very, very specific about the order of events. It is also filled with little typos by both officers (DISORDERLY CONDUCY in the supplement, for example), which suggests to me they were not edited and written up hastily from notes (if you recall my missive on note-taking earlier).  Crowley uses the adjective “tumultuous” quite a bit when describing Gates’s behavior; I wonder if this is police jargon for disorderly conduct. Crowley does not mention taking notes in the report, but I’m suspect he had a pad out when he went into the house, given his ability to quote Gates at length.

Crowley’s account is accompanied by that of another officer, Carlos Figueroa, who states he responded to the call at almost the same time, and arrived just as Crowley entered the house. Figueroa didn’t hear their entire conversation, given that he went to take the statement from the woman who reported a possible break-in, but the language he reports Gates using is more or less identical.

Gates’s interview detailing the incident in Root is somewhat disconnected, but the interview is not an attempt, as far as I can tell, to give a neutral account as much as a charged political statement. His lawyer’s statement from the same site is far more interesting. It is notable for its total lack of any quoted dialogue until the very end, and its insistence that Gates showed his driver’s license also instead of just his university ID (which did not have his address on it) as the police report claims.

The lack of detail is, of course, for legal reasons, but it has the interesting effect of giving the impression it was edited for bad language much like a movie broadcast on TV, whereas the police report has no filter, or, rather a different filter (I have to confess “ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside,” is my favorite line from the report).

Regardless of where you come down on what happened, the simple up/down contrast on cable news between the police narrative of “The officer just doing his job” vs. “the distinguished black Harvard professor arrested by racist cops in his own home” falls apart after reading the generated texts. Was Gates outraged and angry that he was not recognized immediately as a respected Ivy-League professor, and forgot that yelling at police is an extremely bad idea? Was Crowley ticked off that this guy would not cooperate with his standard-procedure requests, and forgot the political storm that would result from arresting a Harvard professor in his front yard? A weird collision of humans occurred, that is certain, one with the weight of the university behind him, and another with the weight of the police union, producing neutrality-pushing documents that describe two almost entirely different incidents. They can’t both be truthful, but they could very well be both wrong. Hopefully some good will come of this – a photo handshake and a beer on the White House porch appears imminent.

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