Saturday, July 25, 2009

Where a bad mood can cost you your freedom or your life

Concerning the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one thing is clear to me. In America, whether or not you will lose your freedom the next time you encounter a policeman may depend on whether you got a good nights sleep, or what you had for breakfast. Better hope you're not grumpy.

President Obama may not have had all the facts, but I believe he was absolutely correct in his assertion that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

Wikipedia has both the police account of the incident, and Gates' own account. Even going by the police report, I can't see how arresting Gates made any sense. Anyway I look at it, I find myself in agreement with President Obama. Gates was arrested for sounding off about the way he perceived himself to have been treated by the police. He did so at his own home. Even if there are statues that allow police to make arrests in such circumstances, it is ridiculous to suggest that the police needed to make an arrest of a severely jet-lagged, elderly, and disabled gentleman to restore public order (Isn't that, after all, what the police are there for?)

Rather than arrest Gates, the police ought to have recognized that it was time for them to leave.

To what extent race explains the way the police treated Gates, we can speculate. What is apparent to me is that American law-enforcement personnel do not always go the extra mile to show courtesy in the line of duty; I have noticed that some officers favor a heavy-handed manner. This approach I regard as "stupid" because it can easily stir up trouble where none existed.

It seems to me that arrests and threats of arrest are made far too casually in the United States today. Observe the manner in which a US police officer approached this blogger. Although I was doing nothing harmful to anyone, the policeman suddenly threatened to put me in jail.

If you haven't seen it already, here's the video.

Lucky I was not jet-lagged and irritable that day. Lucky for me that I had not allowed my emotions show to show when the policeman grabbed at my camera. Luckier still for me that the confrontation did not trigger thoughts of resentment about any past discrimination I might have experienced.

These days, being in a bad mood in the presence of an American police officer can get you Tazered to death, or merely locked up in jail. Gates too was lucky.

UPDATE: a former police officer quoted in the NY Times today makes a similar point to my own. See this post.


  1. I would say that Gates was in more than a "bad mood." He refused to comply with multiple requests/orders from the cops.

    The first request, to step out of the house, is standard procedure. It is intended to protect the officer (from hidden weapons beside the door) and the citizen (from making a move that might be seen as going for a weapon).

    He went right to his angry place, and then berated cops who were there primarily to protect his property. This doesn't sound like a bad day; this sounds like the kind of fear and resentment that builds up over years.

    I have little sympathy for someone who can't control his own tongue, especially when he's Gates' age, and especially when the nature of that disturbance is so racially charged as to possibly incite others to crime.

  2. J-P,

    Was anything positive -- in terms of the underlying function of police work -- achieved by arresting Gates (I'm not referring to the fact it led to a public debate which could be considered positive, I mean the arrest itself)? As for me, I simply can't think of how arresting the old guy furthered any public good.

  3. Jotman, as always, you go to the heart of things. Your question made me think.

    The reason I support the action against Gates is that his anger wasn't just anger. It was mixed with a lot of extreme and inflammatory racial accusations as well. From my two years working for the police, I can think of a couple of incidents where such language was stirring up a crowd, and which put those of us on-scene in significant danger.

    I don't know the circumstances of this particular scene, so my opinion of the matter may be unfair; but I know that an officer who wants to go home that night doesn't often have the luxury of second-guessing his fear instinct. I think that Gates was out of line, and that he was technically breaking the law. If a good cop in the heat of the moment thinks its appropriate to enforce such a law, I think that needs to be respected.

    An arrest and subsequent dropping of charges is inconvenient and embarrassing - which, given Gates' behavior, I think is deserved - but harms no one and still allows for an apology if one needs to be given later.

  4. Jotman, as always, you go to the heart of things. Your question made me think.

    Thank you!

    I think that Gates was out of line, and that he was technically breaking the law.

    My understanding is that yelling in public does not violate Massachusetts' law. And Gates was at his home. As far as I can tell, the police report doesn't indicate any illegal behavior.

    If a good cop in the heat of the moment thinks it's appropriate to enforce such a law, I think that needs to be respected.

    I think we can all "respect" the fact that from time to time good police are bound to make mistakes. We should respect good officers, but we must not overlook or summarily excuse mistakes. Mistakes should be examined both to compensate the injured, and to ensure they don't happen again.

    An arrest and subsequent dropping of charges is inconvenient and embarrassing - which, given Gates' behavior, I think is deserved - but harms no one...

    I disagree that "it harms no one."

    If this was the case, the Anglo-American system would not recognize false arrest as a common law tort. Some people may be predisposed to being traumatized by arrest; one cannot assume the judge who hears the case will not (also) make a mistake. Fundamentally, to arrest someone is to deprive a citizen of his freedom. This is not the kind of action that should ever be taken lightly in a free society.

    Having said that, I acknowledge that police need to be able to exercise discretion, and this will lead to mistakes from time to time.

    Nevertheless, I believe each and every unnecessary arrest is a serious transgression, and calls for rebuke or at least some kind of formal review process.

    In the case of Gates, public criticism of police conduct serves a public good. Many unnecessary arrests involve persons who are not high-profile, and go unnoticed by the news media. That's why I think it's good that Gates is speaking out. It serves to remind people where a line has been crossed and hold American police officers to basic professional standards.

  5. It seems the officer also violated federal law when he entered Gates' home without a warrant, as explained on
    Fox News.

  6. In a similar vein, Woody dug this up and posted this over at Wild,Wild Left //

    'But the big gun in this dispute, brought to the surface by the "tumultuousness" of Harvard (black) scholar Henry Louis Gates's unreasonable and probably illegal rousting from his Harvard Square home, is on the bench of the 9th Circuit. Via Ed Brayton, poaching on Andrew Sullivan, who unearthed the opinion of noted conservative (but also First Amendment absolutist) jurist Alex Kozinski on such matters. Kozinski concluded, more than a decade ago, that

    ...basically ..."mouthing off to police is protected speech."

    The case, Duran v. City of Douglas Arizona, began when "Plaintiff Ralph Duran directed a series of expletives and an obscene hand gesture at defendant Gilbert Aguilar, a police officer. Officer Aguilar responded by detaining and arresting Duran, who, along with his wife, now brings this lawsuit for injuries he suffered during the incident."

    In his ruling, Kozinski wrote:
    "Thus, while police, no less than anyone else, may resent having obscene words and gestures directed at them, they may not exercise the awesome power at their disposal to punish individuals for conduct that is not merely lawful, but protected by the First Amendment. . ."
    Inarticulate and crude as Duran's conduct may have been, it represented an expression of disapproval toward a police officer with whom he had just had a run-in. As such, it fell squarely within the protective umbrella of the First Amendment and any action to punish or deter such speech-such as stopping or hassling the speaker-is categorically prohibited by the Constitution. '

  7. Dancing Bear,

    Good point: shouting or swearing -- especially when directed at public officials -- is protected under the First Amendment.

    Gates knew his rights under the Constitution.


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