Cambridge PD, He Was Doing You a Favor by Calling it Stupid: Updated 1, 2, 3

Posted on July 24, 2009

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Did President Obama make a mistake by “weighing in on events” without having all the facts, as right wing noise making devices have been screaming about the past few days? Let’s get some meaningless stuff out of the way first. Let’s forget about the racist resident who called in her own neighbor. That’s just something people of color have had to live with for generations and generations; nothing to see there, let’s forget about that, because to be honest, we’ve had to forget about such things for a long, long time and it doesn’t look like that’s going to end no matter the color or the middle name of our President. Let’s forget the fact that Gates was interrogated in his own home by a police officer, and that showing his own ID wasn’t enough, somehow, to bring the situation to a close.

Let’s just talk about the disorderly conduct. We actually have all the facts we need to know about that.

First, I don’t care how loud you get when a police officer comes to give you orders in your own home. If that police officer is properly trained–if the goal is to minimize the impact on the community–he/she will, for a moment, empathize with the person’s predicament. And there’s a lot to inform empathy here: who wouldn’t get mad in such a situation? Indeed, the fact that a person of any color can’t get locked out of their own home without getting the police, and their freedom, involved, is too absurdly infuriating to calmly contemplate in a country that bills itself as a bastion of civil liberties.

Next, when Cambridge dropped the disorderly conduct charges on Gates, they admitted that the charge was baseless. If that’s not the case, if as CPD Commissioner Robert Haas declared that the charges were dropped only because “we basically felt that this was a situation that we needed to move on” then we are talking about a de facto multi-tiered system of justice. If rich, well-connected people make a big enough stink about charges, they will be dropped. We already know that’s the case, so the CPD better be able stand by that assertion if that’s the way it wants to go.

There’s another perspective, of course. Such charges are nearly always and almost by definition frivolous—left to the judgment of a police officer who often, instead of using a practical metric of conduct, uses his/her own variable need for unwarranted respect as the rubric. There is, unfortunately for police officers, no law that requires citizens to be respectful to police—just as there is, and quite obviously so, no law that requires police officers to be respectful to citizens.  The difference is that police have a variety of charges that they can apply in this stead, while those such as Gates only have the varying capacity to make a stink about it later.

I say this as someone who has been arrested under such charges and knowing literally dozens of people who have also been. Indeed, its one of the most common things to be arrested for during marches or demonstrations–or even in front of a club or party–when a police officer is looking for a way to make a statement or let off steam. I don’t know anyone who has ever been charged with disorderly conduct or resisting arrest who hasn’t seen that charge dropped either before or at trial.

This is rampant but accepted abuse of authority and this is the only issue in question—and its one that gets to the heart of many of the myths that reinforce counterproductive attitudes in the American public. Its not whether the police officer should have been called in to Gates’ house. Its not whether Gates should or should not have yelled at the police officer. Its whether the incident should have ended in an arrest. And its quite obvious that only someone stupid—or to be less generous, a blind idolater of authority—would agree that it should have.

Update 1: I can’t begin to express my dismay at this comment by Dennis O Connor, the President of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association:

“The facts of this case suggest that the President used the right adjective but directed it at the wrong party.”

Excuse me, didn’t your department drop the charges, in fact, admitting that they had no basis?

Update 2: A correspondence with a friendly legal professional holding very differenc views from mine, points out the following:

A key concept that I did not address (and perhaps should have) is nolle prosequi (”nol pros”), which is a court filing made by district attorneys to drop criminal charges. It is incorrect to conclude that filing a nol pros means the prosecution lacked sufficient evidence to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The decision to nol pros a case is a discretionary executive power decision often made because the D.A. doesn’t believe it is in the larger public interest to pursue a criminal case. “[I]n the interests of justice” was the language used in the joint press release announcing the nol pros. Unfortunately, many people jumped to the incorrect conclusion that this was an admission that Crowley should not have arrested Gates as a technical matter. Not so at all.

This is a good point, and one that I over-reached on. But I think this brings up a whole different set of issues, specifically centered around the press conferences by the police department and assorted benevolence associations. The city chose not to proceed with the case, and yet the police commissioner and subsequent assorted assemblage have all concluded that Crowley acted appropriately. That can’t be determined without some kind of investigation and subsequent trial. Simply think of this in more serious terms–if Gates was accused of assaulting the officer. We would have the police talking about the assault as if it had been proven, not as if it was an unproven charge. We don’t know whether Gates acted unreasonably enough to merit the discretionary decision to move ahead with the arrest–and we don’t know that because the city dropped the charges! The city and its police can’t have it both ways–they can’t proceed with a fait accompli about Gates, while still avoiding the kind of litigation which would prove or disprove Gates’ accusations.

Update 3: I felt it only fair to update this for posterity’s sake that race had very little to do with the 911 call apparently. Though it was a fair assumption to make–and really a dynamic that plays out so often that it is never commented on. But also unfortunate that a person who was doing her best to make an honest report and–obviously wrestling with her position as white woman making such a report–managed to get tarred in all this. Live and learn, and apologies. What I find interesting, however, is that whenever a white person is unfairly tarred in this manner, its as if the world has to stop and we have to re-examine whether or not its a good idea to notice racism anymore. Now, let a black person be put in jail for no reason, its not going to be characterized as an indictment of our society or justice system.

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