Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree spoke today with the Globe education reporter Tracy Jan about his new book, ďThe Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America,Ē and what he sees as the lessons learned from the high-profile case. Ogletree, founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the law school, also serves as an adviser on police behavior to Harvard University and the City of Cambridge.
He spoke just after Cambridge released a report saying that both Gates and police Sergeant James Crowley, had missed opportunities to de-escalate their confrontation nearly a year ago.
Q. Why did you write the book?
Q: One year has passed since the arrest. Has anything changed as a result?
A: Yes. The commissioner (Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas) and I have been meeting regularly to talk about these issues. Both of us are engaged in ways to improve police training. Iím trying to bring Boston's Youth & Police in Partnership program to Cambridge and around the nation. It exposes young people to the positive roles police play in our community and gives them greater appreciation of how to be safe, secure and free, even in the most tense urban settings.
Q: What about changes within the Harvard University Police, which, as documented in your book, has also mistaken black students and professors for criminal suspects?
A: [Harvard University Police] Chief Bud Riley is obviously paying attention and taking lessons from this. Theyíre trying to get it right. The president [Drew Faust] is committed to having a harmonious community that respects the rights of the students and the authorities of the police. Her leadership on this issue is central. Use these incidents as teachable moments going forward.
Q: Did Gates and Crowley become buddies following the infamous Beer Summit?
A: Professor Gates proposed after the beer summit to go on a series of town hall meetings with Sergeant Crowley, but that just never materialized. I know they have been in constant contact, and they had one formal meal at River Gods (bar and restaurant in Cambridge) a few months ago. They are friendly and they are still talking, and I am very hopeful there can be a larger forum to bridge the gap between police and the community. Itís central to moving forward to have them both present and explain how they respect each other. They both want to put this matter behind them and get on with their lives. Professor Gates loves police. He admires what they do. He just never thought heíd among the criminals. It was a revelation that it can happen to anybody.
Q: What does Gates' arrest tell us about race and class, and the criminal justice system?
A: We have a lot of work to do and there is a lot of mistrust and fear on both sides. We canít move forward without a meaningful dialogue. And it canít start with adults. It needs to start with 7 and 8 year olds in urban communities who have been conditioned to be fearful of police. Police have a largely impossible job of both trying to prevent crime and address crime when itís committed, and they canít do it without meaningful community cooperation.
A: The report is important and timely in its recommendations about going forward and in improving the relations between law enforcement officers and the community. That is sorely needed and it could not have come at a more appropriate time.
On the other hand, itís disappointing, because the summary of the incident leaves off the most critical and dispositive factors of what occurred on July 16, 2009. For the report to say both Gates and Crowley had an equal opportunity to de-escalate the situation is just breathtaking and unbelievable. The person with control and power to make an arrest that day was Sergeant James Crowley, not Professor Gates. It was wrong of Crowley to arrest him. To say they mutually had the responsibility to resolve it is an unfair burden on the citizens.
Professor Gates was scared, he was outraged. He had to break his own door to get into his house and sees a police officer with a badge and a gun at the door. He is surprised as ever. He gave Sergeant Crowley both his Harvard ID and his driver's license. He said, "If you donít believe me, call the Harvard Police chief, they know who I am.'' Sergeant Crowley did none of that.
The commission also does not reference any of the obvious mistakes in the police reports, which said Gates did not give his information. Somebodyís not telling the truth, and the public is entitled to a real sense of what happened.
I just wonder if this situation would have resulted in a different outcome if there had been a woman involved, either as a police officer or as the person being questioned, and I have to say, I imagine so. We had a lot of testosterone in both directions. And we didnít have the empathy and careful listening and measured judgment that may have resulted in a different outcome.
Q: Do you know how Crowley reacted to the book?
A: I donít know if he's read it. Iíve been told he doesnít like the title. But the title is not just about him, it's about a wider problem. We shouldnít have a presumption of guilt in our legal system. Iím not saying Sergeant Crowley is a bad police officer or heís racist. Thatís an unfair indictment. I leave it for people to draw their own conclusions.
Q: Does Gates plan on suing, as he originally threatened to do shortly after his arrest?
A: He has not mentioned pursuing it at all since his original concern. This is behind him. So I doubt that he will. But its completely up to him. Iíve had no indication that he will.
Q: Some may find it strange that you represent Gates, yet you've written this book. How could it possibly be fair?
A: It is odd in one sense. Often clients canít say what theyíd like to say, but it doesnít mean they canít have a voice. This book tells it like it is. Some things Professor Gates will like, and some things he wonít like: I write that even though he has a right to say what he did to Crowley, demanding his name and badge number, I wouldnít advise it. I tell my law students never ever, ever to ask a police officer for his name and badge number because the answer is not going to be satisfactory. Itís just going to escalate the situation.
You have a right to exercise your First Amendment rights, but in some cases, the right to do something is not the same thing as saving your complaint for another day or another forum where you wonít receive the response that came through. This is not to end the discussion but to really begin it, with information people had not considered such as the conscious and unconscious bigotry that influences what people do.
Q: You talk about the Rodney King beating and the ensuing LA riots, which you wrote a book about in 1994. What does that have to do with the Gates arrest?
A: I do not compared the arrest to the beating of Rodney King. The point of the matter is that the Rodney King incident gave us a window into the problem between police and community. Most police officers abide by the law and understand their job. We need to make sure those who arenít involved in violations donít ignore misconduct by their colleagues and sort of draw ranks together rather than pointing out errors.
The lessons we need to learn from Rodney King should be applied here as well: A commissioner who is saying, "I want to fix it going forward, I want to go into the community and talk to people, I want to tell my officers to think more carefully about disorderly conduct arrests.'' The most important thing is we need to have much more diversity in law enforcement ranks, which means encouraging African American, Latino, and other women and men to pursue a career in law enforcement and to become a valuable asset in solving the problem of racial discrimination and racial profiling.
Q: In your book, you write that race continues to trump class, even at one of the most elite campuses in the world. You describe the presumption of innocence as a privilege for black students and professors, who police have treated as criminal suspects. How does this impact their experiences at Harvard?
A: Every year, my black law students report something to me about being questioned by police. They think they have arrived. They made it through college and have come to a prestigious graduate school. Yet they are still suspected of committing crimes they did not commit. The presumption of innocence doesnít really exist for black males. That is very disappointing and very painful. We have not arrived.
Editor's note: Gates declined to be interviewed, and Crowley did not return calls for comment on Ogletree's book and on the Cambridge report.
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