Police Aren’t Psychic

Considering my day job, how could I not comment on the President’s thoughtless comments regarding the racial kerfuffle in Cambridge, Mass. involving celebrated Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley?

A point that seems to be missed by most in the media is the initial motivation that brought Sgt. Crowley to the Gates’ residence that evening. It’s important to consider the circumstances surrounding Crowley’s specific professional situation. Now, I’m not saying Crowley was all right and Gates was all wrong—I wasn’t there. I can only base my comments on what I’ve heard reported in the media, and what I’ve read the police reports.

According to police reports available online Sgt. Crowley isn’t currently assigned to patrol. Although in uniform, Sgt. Crowley, reportedly assigned to an administrative assignment, heard the call of a possible burglary in progress occurring nearby, on his police radio. With this call dispatched and patrol officers en route, Sgt. Crowley wouldn’t have been condemned if he’d simply allowed those officers to respond and had gone about his own business. Crowley apparently felt obligated to respond–like a good cop.

Sgt. Crowley decided to respond to a citizen in need, and no I’m not talking about the observant citizen who reported the suspicious circumstances to 911; I’m talking about Professor Gates, the owner of the home. Of course Sgt. Crowley didn’t know who owned the house, whether the person was black, white, Hispanic, gay, straight, male, or female, he didn’t care; criminals were breaking into someone’s castle and Crowley, potentially risking his life and safety, wasn’t about to let that happen if he could do something about it.

This is an important factor, Sgt. Crowley didn’t have to be there; he was being a good cop. It’s ironic that the reward for his diligence is the ire of someone who otherwise appears to be a pillar of the Cambridge community. I’ve experienced similar situations during the course of my career and in my book, Is There a Problem, Officer?, I address these circumstances.

Although this incident now has racial overtones due to Professor Gate’s, and subsequently, the President’s, Massachusetts Governor’s, and Cambridge Mayor’s premature comments, regardless of race, good people, of whom I have every reason to believe Professor Gate’s is, sometimes have a difficult time comprehending how anyone can see them as anything other than good—regardless of the situation. They know they’re no danger to the officer, but the officer isn’t about to bet his or her life on that. I’ve got some news for the good professor, police officers aren’t psychic and they don’t issue cops crystal balls at the Police Academy.

I don’t know if I would have reacted the same way Sgt. Crowley did at the scene, or have made the same decisions, and I say that because I was not there at the scene. Officers often, as in this case, have a range of options available to them, and as long as they react within that range, as it appears Sgt. Crowley did here, the debate is academic at best and at worst specious. Even if one doesn’t agree with the decisions Sgt. Crowley made that night after attempting to protect Professor Gates’ home, the sergeant was within his legitimate authority to make the arrest as he did.

Remember, Sergeant Crowley felt obligated to respond to a citizen in need; he did that. On the other hand, Professor Gates had an obligation to see the situation from the officer’s perspective–a lone officer responding to a possible burglary in progress, with multiple suspects–and to cooperate as any good citizen should.

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