THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Gates tapes show confrontation, don’t answer question of blame

Boston.com article page player in wide format.
By Peter Schworm and John Ellement
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid email address
Invalid email address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

The 911 call, alerting police to a possible break-in in a well-to-do Cambridge neighborhood, was routine and dutiful, almost apologetic in tone. A woman said that two gentlemen were seen pushing a door in to enter a house, but added that it might simply be residents having a hard time with their keys after returning home from a trip. She mentioned race only when pressed by the bored-sounding dispatcher, then halfheartedly replied that one of the men “looked kind of Hispanic.’’

But when Cambridge police Sergeant James M. Crowley arrived at the Harvard Square home of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a customary check quickly turned complicated and confrontational, according to police radio dispatches released yesterday.

With a man’s loud voice in the background, Crowley reported that “a gentleman who says he resides here’’ is being “uncooperative,’’ and, referring to other cruisers on the way to the scene, said to “keep the cars coming.’’ In a terse, matter-of-fact tone, he radioed that the man had identified himself as “a Henry Louis Gates.’’ Again, a man’s assertive voice is in the background of Crowley’s transmission. Then, as Crowley’s radio went silent, another officer calls for a wagon to take in the arrested scholar on charges of disorderly conduct. At least five Cambridge police officers responded to the scene. Harvard police also responded.

The highly anticipated dispatches, made public during a press conference at police headquarters, shed some new light on the polarizing encounter earlier this month between Gates, a black man and a scholar specializing in race relations, and Crowley, a white officer who trained recruits to avoid racial profiling.

The material indicates that Crowley was unaware Gates was black when he reached the scene. But the often indistinct recordings leave vexingly unanswered most questions about the incident that has captured worldwide attention.

The tapes fail to establish whether blame for escalating the encounter falls at the feet of Gates, who Crowley said called him a racist cop, or of Crowley, whom Gates later labeled a “rogue cop.’’ They leave unreconciled sharply divergent accounts of the incident offered by the two men.

After a week of controversy over the racially charged episode, which has dominated the national conversation and cast President Obama into a fierce debate on race relations, the more than four minutes of audio provide no clear vindication for either side.

Brief snippets of a man’s voice can be heard in the background in three separate radio transmissions. What he says is difficult to make out, but he is speaking loudly and emphatically. At one point he appears to say, “I’m outraged.’’

Neither police nor Gates’s lawyer would confirm that the voice belongs to the Harvard professor. Crowley and police union officials could not be reached for comment.

City and police leaders, who released the tapes in an effort to move beyond the media frenzy around the contretemps, declined to interpret the recordings, with Commissioner Robert C. Haas saying only that the tapes “speak for themselves.’’

“It is my belief that there is no way we can continue to go forward if there is any lingering doubt that there is anything being hidden,’’ said City Manager Robert Healy. “It contains the complete 911 telephone call and the communications between the officers on the scene or on the way to the scene.’’

The recordings, edited to cull out unrelated radio calls, were made as part of regular department procedures in which 911 calls and conversations between officers and the dispatch center are taped around the clock.

The nearly three-minute 911 call, made by Lucia Whalen, a 40-year-old woman who works near Gates’s home, only briefly mentioned race and did not describe the two suspects as black. That diverged from the police report written by Crowley, which stated that Whalen told Crowley she observed “what appeared to be two black males with backpacks’’ on the porch of Gates’s home.

Officer Frank Pasquarello, a Police Department spokesman, said officers often receive what seems like conflicting information from witnesses once they arrive on the scene.

Whalen and her attorney did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. But in a radio interview yesterday on WTKK-FM radio, Whalen’s lawyer, Wendy Murphy, said Whalen did not provide additional details at the scene.

“Never once in any of her statements, conversations, and so forth did she ever use the word black,’’ Murphy said. “But more importantly, when Sergeant Crowley got there, she didn’t have a conversation with him at all.’’

Through her lawyer, Whalen said Sunday that she was “personally devastated’’ by the implication that she placed the call because Gates and a cab driver who helped him with his jammed front door, were black.

In her call, Whalen calmly tells a dispatcher she had seen two suitcases on the porch and wasn’t sure if the men were breaking 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,’’ Whalen said.

Gates declined comment, but Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law professor who is Gates’s lawyer, said on his behalf that the professor was pleased the call revealed no racial bias.

“I’m glad that [the recordings] reinforce that the person who made the 911 call was very conscientious and only reported what she saw,’’ Ogletree said. “Somehow the transmission from the caller to the police department has led to a very different set of impressions. Professor Gates is very pleased that more of this information is coming forward.’’

Tracy Jan of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent John S. Nicas II contributed to this report.

Related

Audio recordings from the arrest:
Get Adobe Flash player
Get Adobe Flash player