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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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How much information is enough?

QuestionsDecision makers often insist that ideas and propositions be distilled on ‘one side of A4’ before they are considered.

When and how can justice be done to an idea using such a brief format? Does this format necessarily pre-suppose a significant amount of already shared understanding?

And does such brevity build shared confidence because it’s easy to access, or sometimes reduce confidence because it forcloses on wider debate?

Meetings: when is a brief one better?

QuestionsWhat’s the best duration for meetings to make decisions?

On what factors does this depend?

Can duration strengthen or weaken a team decision?

Who defines who is a 'stakeholder'?

QuestionsIt is quite usual for a consultation of some sort to be carried out before official action is taken, especially in areas of social policy and the like.

This consultation is likely to be with those who are regarded as ‘stakeholders’.

But how is this role, entitling the people so labelled to be consulted, defined? And by whom? Do they usually get it right?

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