Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
The Cambridge police commissioner today defended the actions of the sergeant who arrested prominent black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. last week at his home, saying he believed the sergeant acted "consistent with his training" and without racial bias.
"I don't believe that Sergeant [James M.] Crowley acted with any racial motivation at all," said Commissioner Robert Haas.
But Haas also said that he would form a panel of experts to look into the incident and see whether some lessons could be learned from it. He said it was an opportunity to reexamine policies and procedures and he was confident some good would come out of the situation.
Haas also revealed, in response to reporters' questions at the news conference, that Gates's house had been broken into before the incident. He did not specify exactly when the break-in had taken place.
Crowley arrested Gates, a leading expert on African-American history, last Thursday after police were called to a report of a break-in at the Ware Street home. Gates had just arrived home from the filming of a PBS documentary in China. His front door was stuck shut, and his taxi driver helped him pry it open.
According to a police report, a woman had called to report two black men trying to force their way into a house. Crowley said in the report that Gates became disruptive and was arrested for disorderly conduct. Gates has denied that he was disorderly.
The incident sparked a firestorm of controversy and a national debate over racism and racial profiling. Gates demanded an apology from Crowley on Wednesday and Crowley refused. President Barack Obama inserted himself into the controversy Wednesday night by saying police had "acted stupidly" in the incident.
Asked about Obama's comment, Cambridge police commissioner Haas said that "this department is deeply pained."
"It deeply hurts the pride of this agency," he told a news conference this afternoon at city police headquarters.
"Sergeant Crowley followed proper protocol and procedures in making the arrest," said Haas, describing Crowley as a "stellar member of this department. I rely on his judgment every day."
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who is one of Gates’s lawyers, said after the news conference that he was pleased to hear police would form a panel to investigate the incident and uncover any lessons that could be learned.
“I assume they will investigate the character and conduct of all the parties involved,” Ogletree said. “I applaud a thorough examination of policies, procedures and practices. I think it will lead to some interesting findings and, hopefully, reforms in the way in which organizations within the city conduct their practices.”
Asked whether Gates, who met with Ogletree at length this afternoon, is still considering a lawsuit, Ogletree responded: “We’re not focusing on a lawsuit right now. We’re focusing on trying to move forward and clarifying what happened, and how to repair the damage to personalities.”
Ogletree hinted that more information would surface about the arrest in coming days.
“I think it will be examined in the larger court of public opinion and that will give all of us a clearer sense whether there was a valid, legitimate and constitutional basis for the arrest,” he said.
Ogletree said he and Gates were surprised by Obama’s remarks on the arrest last night. “He was pleased that the president was at least aware of the incident and without attempting to know all the facts, at least addressed the broader issue of the need for more community dialogue on the issue of racial profiling,” Ogletree said.
Obama commented on the case again earlier this afternoon, saying he was "surprised by the controversy surrounding" his criticism.
"I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who is in his own home."
In an interview to air on ABC's "Nightline" tonight, Obama said it didn't make sense to him that Gates was arrested.
"I think that I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do," the president said in the interview. "And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed. That's my suspicion."
The lawyer for the police union that represents Crowley also predicted that Obama would regret his comment on the Cambridge police.
Governor Deval Patrick said this afternoon that he empathized with Gates, recalling his own experiences with racial profiling and "feeling powerless" when he was a black teenager at Milton Academy.
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