The professor and the policeman: what went wrong?

case studyThe ‘Gatesgate’ report (Missed Opportunities: Shared Responsibilities, 15 June 2010) is finally out.

The USA City of Cambridge, Mass. has produced 64 pages of commentary on the investigation of a suspected break-in at a professor’s home, when the home-owner ended up himself being arrested.

$100,000 and a year down the line, we now learn that it should have been possible to avoid the incident in which the black Harvard professor of African-American studies, Henry Louis Gates, was arrested in Prof Gates’ own home on 16 July 2009 by police sergeant James Crowley.

All these two men would have had to do, was talk to each other more in a more mutually civil way at the onset of the incident. The report identifies ‘….. missed opportunities to lower the temperature of their encounter and communicate clearly with each other, and the results were unfortunate for all concerned. They [therefore] share responsibility for the outcome.’

Not ‘profiling’, just personal
The personal stakes for the two men were high – presumably, being accused of no arrest of a suspect when there should have been one, or alternatively failing to challenge racism when one’s professional reputation is partly centred on this subject – but these stakes could have been managed if civility had been maintained.

So it seems there wasn’t really much basis on this occasion for the conflicting claims about police racial profiling. It might all have ended more quickly with a shared chat in Prof Gates’ garden, not over a beer on President Barack Obama’s patio.

Edgy individuals but perennial issues
But – and it’s a big but – people often do get edgy in difficult situations (as a black person at unfair risk of arrest, or as a law enforcement officer concerned about burglars); and the media love these sorts of stories.

To its credit, the City of Cambridge in its report on this incident addresses perennially challenging issues around community policing. The wider general question however remains for us all to consider: how can common sense prevail when sensitivities are acute?

What sort of advice or protocol, we might wonder, can help opposing parties to have the thoughtful exchange of views first, when the potential for being accused later of inappropriate inaction is so high?

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Posted on July 4, 2010, in Real-Life Examples and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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