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Globe Editorial

A professor’s arrest

July 22, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE POLICE and prosecutors found a mature resolution to a dust-up late last week between an officer and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a leading African-American scholar: They dropped the charges against Gates, who never should have been arrested.

The confrontation between Gates and Sergeant James Crowley isn’t a textbook example of racial profiling. The Cambridge officer was investigating a citizen’s call about a possible break-in at Gates’s home. It turned out to be the noted professor and his driver struggling with a broken door. Gates apparently took umbrage at the officer’s line of questioning, at one point suggesting that the police presence could be explained by the professor’s race. The conversation escalated; the report depicts Gates as haughty and insulting. He was cuffed and charged with disorderly conduct.

Gates told the Globe yesterday that the report is full of the officer’s “broad imagination.’’ Once the officer established that Gates was indeed standing in his own home, the encounter should have ended. Objecting to an officer’s presence in one’s residence should hardly be grounds for arrest.

Still, confrontations with police seldom end well, even if officers are in the wrong. If Gates believed he was being treated discourteously, he could have filed a complaint with the police department’s section for professional standards. Ultimately, though, it was the officer’s responsibility to de-escalate the situation, even by walking away. Police are trained specifically to ignore verbal provocations that come their way.

Cambridge police are well-regarded in the profession for dealing sensitively with the public, according to Northeastern University criminologist Jack McDevitt, a national expert on racial profiling. But even that department needs a reminder that its job is to keep the peace, not to spar with citizens who pose no risk to public safety.

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Gates talks about his arrest
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(Audio edited for clarity and length)

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