911 Tape in Gates Arrest Raises New Questions

From the Boston Globe:

The 911 recording showed the mundane beginnings of a media frenzy. The caller who alerted police to two men entering Gates’s house on July 16 told a dispatcher that she had seen two suitcases on the porch and said she wasn’t sure if it was a break-in.

“I don’t know what’s happening. … I don’t know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key, but I did notice they had to use their shoulders to try to barge in,” the caller said.

The recording appeared to reflect a relatively routine call, with officers and even the 911 caller mostly calm.

The recordings were released after a noon news conference held by City Manager Robert Healy, Mayor E. Denise Simmons, and Police Commissioner Robert Haas.

Asked what the tapes showed, Haas said, “I think the tapes speak for themselves and I would ask you to form your own opinion.”

One thing the tapes didn’t show: any clear background sound that indicated Gates was shouting during the incident. Another voice can be heard in the background of at least three transmissions, but what the person is saying is difficult to discern.

Another discrepancy between reality and previous accounts: The woman who was passing by when Gates was trying to get into his home and called 911 did not say anything about the racial identity of either Gates or the cab driver who was helping him open the jammed door — and she did not speak with Officer Crowley on the scene:

The woman who made the 911 call that led to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. never referred to black suspects when she called authorities for what she thought was a potential break-in.

Police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, released the 911 phone call Monday. In the call, Lucia Whalen reports seeing “two larger men, one looked kind of Hispanic, but I’m not really sure, and the other one entered, and I didn’t see what he looked like at all.”

“I just saw it from a distance, and this older woman was worried, thinking somebody’s breaking in someone’s house and they’ve been barging in,” Whalen says. “She interrupted me, and that’s when I noticed. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all, to be honest with you. So I was just calling because she was a concerned neighbor, I guess.”

Attorney Wendy Murphy, who represents Whalen, also categorically rejected part of the police report that said Whalen talked with Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, at the scene.

“Let me be clear: She never had a conversation with Sgt. Crowley at the scene,” Murphy told CNN by phone. “And she never said to any police officer or to anybody ‘two black men.’ She never used the word ‘black.’ Period.”

She added, “I’m not sure what the police explanation will be. Frankly, I don’t care. Her only goal is to make it clear she never described them as black. She never saw their race. … All she reported was behavior, not skin color.”

And another interesting detail about Whalen:

Murphy also disputed accounts of her client as a white woman in the traditional sense. “The fact is, she’s olive-skinned and of Portuguese descent. You wouldn’t look at her and say, necessarily, ‘Oh, there’s a white woman.’ You might think she was Hispanic,” Murphy said.

So why did the police report imply that the 911 caller did refer to Gates and the cab driver as “two black men”?

In an interview last night, Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas said it was ac curate that Whalen did not mention race in her 911 call. He acknowledged that a police report of the incident did include a race reference. The report says Whalen observed “what appeared to be two black males with backpacks on the front porch’’ of a Ware Street home on July 16.

That reference is there, said Haas, because the police report is a summary. Its descriptions – like the race of the two men – were collected during the inquiry, not necessarily from the initial 911 call, he said.

There’s no lack of commentary on the continuing saga of “Gates-gate,” but I particularly like Robin Wells’s piece at Huffington Post:

We’ve embarked on a national attempt to find something redeeming in the Gates-Crowley affair – to find the “teachable moment.” Obama’s gracious and politically astute offer to bring the two men together is an example of what Obama does best – creating an uplifting moment of reconciliation, a feel-good moment in which each party can have their say in front of the cameras. But like a family psychodrama, I suspect that most of us know that it won’t stop there, and nothing will really have been resolved. Like a marriage counselor who has seen this particular couple’s arguments many times before, we know on a gut level that some hard truths are going to have to be addressed before the fractious couple that is white and black America can start to move on.

Yet, it’s important to be clear that I’m not applying any kind of moral equivalence to the actions of Professor Gates and Officer Crowley. On the facts as we know them, I believe that the treatment of Professor Gates was unjust and unprofessional. Yes, he was belligerent to a police officer. But that is no crime, and nowhere has Officer Crowley shown that there was any chance of a crime being committed, confirmed by the Cambridge Police Department’s quick decision to drop the charges against Professor Gates. Police officers are trained to be professionals, and a professional would have recognized that an obstreperous sexagenarian who walks with a cane standing in his own house and faced with a phalanx of armed police officers is no threat. And if Office Crowley had paid attention to his diversity training, he would have been prepared for the outrage accompanying perceived acts of racial profiling. The hard truth is that Officer Crowley’s defense that he was just doing his job just doesn’t wash. Having verified the facts, he had every opportunity to apologize to Professor Gates for the misunderstanding and leave. The hard truth that America needs to hear is that incidents of racial profiling and unfair treatment by the police and judiciary are oppressive facts of life for African American men even today.

However, the weary marriage counselor knows that finding a bogey-man and leaving it there isn’t going to get this couple out of their troubles. Rather, it’s likely to dig them in deeper into their self-justification.

The hard truth that Professor Gates needs to hear is that he is the one who handed over his power to Officer Crowley. Letting his agitation get the better of him, Gates lost the ability to shape the outcome of the encounter and set up his own victimization by a poorly trained police officer.

Cross-posted at Liberty Street.

Author: KATHY KATTENBURG