The Gates Affair: Race or cop culture?

In his Grits for Breakfast blog, Scott Henson suggests there is more to Gates’ reaction than the ghosts of racial history. 

Having read several accounts of the incident, I think its root cause may or may not have been racial but was much more definitely the result of basic police training regarding how officers are taught to engage with the public. In this case, even after learning that Gates was in his own home and they’d been called out based on an error, officers still wanted to maintain a “command presence,” in the policing lingo, and Professor Gates apparently was having none of it.

Henson believes the Harvard professor would have faired better had he simply asked, once the identity issue had been resolved, that the officer leave his property. 

Still, the “I’m in charge here” bluster by police heightened tension in a confrontational situation instead of defusing it and the end result was the President calling the cops “stupid” on national TV. To the extent it was “stupid,” though, it’s also worth remembering it’s probably exactly how the officers were trained to behave, whether they’re dealing with a black man caught breaking into his own home or some blogger who’s babysitting while white.

Henson is referring to an encounter with the Austin Police Department.  He was walking hand-in-hand with his black granddaughter (Henson is white) when he was stopped by an officer who said she had received a complaint about suspicious behavior.  Scott asked how a grandfather walking with his granddaughter could be construed as “suspicious”.   Bomarded with questions, Henson divulged only his personal identifying information and told the officer that it was none of her business where he was going or where he was coming from.

“To my astonishment, while we were talking, another officer pulled up in response to the 911 call, this one a tall, older, thick-chested fellow with graying hair who felt the need to demonstrate his dominance. I replied to his ‘I’m in charge here” bluster by again asking, “Am I free to go?” “No you are not,” he insisted, “not until I’m finished,’ and continued his pointless monologue.

Meanwhile, a THIRD police car pulled up to the scene.”

Officer Crowley had been taught to project a “command presence” in volatile public situations.  In some situations this makes sense.  But when the situation represents no danger to the officer, a command presence is a liability.   The homeowner should now be the commanding presence.  It’s his home!  This forces the officer to shift from command presence to apologetic public servant in a heartbeat. 

It’s a tough transition and Sgt. Crowley couldn’t pull it off. 

We all learn that the role of a peace officer is to “protect and serve” the public.  When officer Crowley entered the home his primary duty was to protect the community from a possible criminal.  Protection trumped service right up to the point where proper identification was shown.  In that instant the equation flipped dramatically.   There was no practical reason to arrest Gastes and a host of practical reasons for walking away.  But silent retreat would have left the professor with the last word and that was more than Crowley could abide. 

Police officers can’t “serve” the public without adopting what preachers call “a servant spirit”.   Once identity has been confirmed Crowley and Gates were in an employer-employee relationship.  It was the officer’s responsibility as a public servant to defuse the situation with a sincere apology.  That’s what every employee learns to do.  

Crowley’s inability to eat humbe pie reflects badly on police culture.

4 thoughts on “The Gates Affair: Race or cop culture?

  1. You’ve nailed it right on about cop culture. Scott said BO called the cop(s) stupid. Really he said they behaved stupidly. None of us are exempt from the human proclivity to behave stupidly from time to time. The cop(s) did behave stupidly. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Dr. Gates did not behave prudently. I’m glad he didn’t. Maybe this whole thing will advance a serious discussion of what race is still about in America in the closing year of the first decade of the 21st century.

  2. I’ve had police exhibit “command presence” from the witness stand, swaggering while seated. When it becomes evident enough, I find it useful to ask the court to admonish the witness that it is not necessary to maintain “command presence” here (in court), whereas His Honor is in charge. The instruction may be refused, but the point is made.

  3. Good police work calls for a repertoire of public persona ranging from the “drop it or you’re dead” command presence to “I certainly apologize for the trouble and inconvenience” supplicant. And, as I suggest above, a good cop sometimes has to make that shift in a heartbeat. According to Gates, he provided ID for the cop (perhaps begrudgingly) but the cop wouldn’t reciprocate when repeatedly asked. That’s an issue the Gates-bashers overlook. Are officers required to give name and badge number?

  4. i have been pulled over by good cops and those who insist on throwing a little weight around. i don’t have too much respect for the empty uniforms sometimes present but i do respect the guns and tasers. all i want out of the situation is to be “free”. mr. gates over-reacted. he, undoubtedely, has pent-up anger that has never been released. we have a number of celebrity figures in sports, etc. that have to enter anger management classes. most blacks are very angry on the inside. i believe that is the purpose of habitat for humanity, to re-segregate our communities and concentrate our hurt and poverty. maybe gates should consider moving to a habitat community and blend in with his surroundings. the cop acted out in a very immature manner but so many of them are haters. i don’t bother nobody with a gun. grow up mr. gates. you are black in america and nothing will change that. CHILL.

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