Not surprisingly, there is little consensus among police officers on the thick-skin vs. zero tolerance question.
An LAPD officer is unimpressed with Crowley’s approach. “Whether we’re giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we’re not dealing with people at their best, and if you don’t have a tough skin, then you shouldn’t be a cop.”
A New York detective disagrees. “We pay these officers to risk their lives every day. We’re taught that officers should have a thicker skin and be a little immune to some comments. But not to the point where you are abused in public. You don’t get paid to be publicly abused. There are laws that protect against that.”
Have you noticed that officer Crowley’s police report is generally embraced by the media as gospel truth while Professor Gates’ version of the story is rarely mentioned? The Harvard professor says he repeatedly asked officer Crowley for his name and badge number, a clear indication that a formal complaint was in the offing. Crowley, Gates says, refused to comply.
The adversarial dynamic between the two men was fueled by fear, race and male ego.
In an abstract and academic sort of way, Professor Gates has always been wrestling with the ghosts of American racism. As Stanley Fish points out, Gates has experienced continual snubs and “the soft bigotry of low expectations” throughout his career. But suddenly, the professor found himself confronted by a white cop who couldn’t accept the fact that a black man might own a house in an exclusive Cambridge neighborhood. Gates interpreted the encounter in terms of the oppression narrative he knows so well. It wasn’t that officer Crowley was asking for identification as a formality; the man clearly didn’t believe that Gates was telling the truth.
Like the civil rights leaders of an earlier era, Henry Louis Gates wasn’t going to back down by allowing the officer who had invaded his home to control the situation.
That’s how the situation appeared to Henry Louis Gates.
How did the scene look and feel to officer Crowley? It’s hard to say. His terse police report focuses almost entirely on professor Gates’ alleged histrionics (a preemptive strike against an anticipated complaint); Crowley says little about his own feelings and perceptions.
But a few safe conclusions can be drawn. Crowley had been led to believe that two big black men with backpacks were trying to break into a home in a posh Cambridge neighborhood. The fact that both Gates and his driver were dressed professionally, that neither man wore anything resembling a backpack, and that Gates weighs 150 pounds in a three-piece suit doesn’t figure into the equation–Crowley was reacting to the information he had received. As silly as it may seem in retrospect, Crowley had reason to believe that his life was in danger.
In short, both men had good reason to be afraid.
Officer Crowley’s training and experience taught him to project a “command presence” in threatening situations. When you’re dealing with a potentially dangerous person you want to be the man in control. Even when asking for identification, Crowley was determined to dominate the scene. When Gates initially refused to identify himself, Crowley became even more brusque and demanding.
Eventually, professor Gates produced positive proof that he was indeed a Harvard professor and that he really was the legal occupant of the home. Then Gates turned the tables by asking Crowley for his name and badge number. Crowley’s report suggests that Gates used his status as a well-connected Harvard professor as a weapon–the equivalent of the firearm strapped to Crowley’s hip.
Now we move beyond fear, race and professional pride into an Alpha-male standoff–two put bulls determined not to give an inch. Gates wasn’t going to back down to a white authority figure who insisted on treating him like a common criminal. Crowley wasn’t going to defer to an arrogant ivory tower academic looking down his nose at a lowly cop.
Barack Obama has invited both officer Crowley and professor Gates to the White House for a beer. Gates has accepted the invitation; hopefully Crowley will follow suit. I like the image: three good-hearted American guys talking things out over a Budweiser.