A retrospective on the Cambridge police incident and Obama’s response: One year later

July 16 will mark the one-year anniversary of the encounter and subsequent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge police department. Following that event, tensions flared and accusatory rhetoric permeated a national discussion of police and race relations that extended all the way to the White House. The culmination of these events led to the president presiding over the now infamous “Beer Summit” between the two participants; a “summit” that offered little insight into the underlying issue itself.

Throughout the past year much has made over how the event in Cambridge bespoke of inequitable policing practices in America. Many used the event as evidence that the police engaged in a systematic pattern of unjustly applying the law. President Obama presumptively cast judgment against the actions of the Cambridge police department while a review of the event’s circumstances was still pending. Recent evidence suggests he should have withheld such judgment.

In a newly published report, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) found no evidence of racial or ethnic bias on the part of the Cambridge police department in enforcing violations of disorderly conduct, the offense for which Professor Gates was arrested. The study, which analyzed arrest data between the years 2004-2009, found that of the 392 individuals arrested for disorderly conduct by the Cambridge Police Department 57 percent were white while 34 percent were African-American. This breakdown among percentages closely resembles the demographic makeup among the total number of individuals investigated for disorderly conduct by the Cambridge police department within that same time frame.

Rather than substantiating the notion aroused by President Obama that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly” in arresting Professor Gates, the NECIR report found that a more salient factor affecting the rate of those arrested for disorderly conduct was one in which the professor himself had engaged; namely, acting in a loud, confrontational, and aggressive manner toward the police. After having been asked by Sgt. Crowley to speak with him outside, the professor reportedly responded, “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside.” Attitude, not race, appeared to constitute a more considerable factor in the decision to arrest Professor Gates.

There is no question that systemic racial biases and an unequal application of the law have impaired past relations between minorities and the criminal justice system. The perpetuation of Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination extended well into the twentieth century and understandably left a trail of uneasiness and mistrust in its wake. Those realities, however, should not overshadow the tremendous progress that has distinguished the contemporary relationship between minority communities and the criminal justice system.