Professor’s Arrest Puts Racial Profiling in the Spotlight

July 23, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates at his own home in Cambridge, Mass., made headlines again Thursday, after President Obama commented on the controversy during Wednesday's news conference. Ray Suarez talks to analysts about the larger issues at play.

JIM LEHRER: Now, a professor’s arrest raises questions about racial profiling. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates made headlines again today, after President Obama waded into the simmering controversy during last night’s news conference.

U.S. President BARACK OBAMA: I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts.

RAY SUAREZ: Some facts are known. Gates, the 58-year-old head of Harvard’s African-American studies program, was arrested last Thursday. He was jimmying a jammed door at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home upon returning from an overseas trip. Police were called after a neighbor reported seeing “two black males with backpacks” allegedly attempting to break in.

There are differing accounts of what happened next. Gates says he told the police he lived in the house and showed them his IDs. The police report states Gates was arrested for, quote, “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior in a public place directed at a uniformed police officer.”

On Tuesday, the disorderly conduct charges against Gates were dropped.

Last night, President Obama made a joke about the situation.

BARACK OBAMA: I mean, if I was trying to jigger into well, I guess this is my house now, so it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago. Here, I’d get shot.

RAY SUAREZ: Then the president turned to the larger problem of racial profiling.

BARACK OBAMA: Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

As you know, Lynn, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in this society.

That doesn’t lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that’s been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause. And that’s why I think the more that we’re working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we’re eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be.

RAY SUAREZ: This morning, the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, who’s taught a class on racial profiling to police cadets, told a Boston-area radio station it was disappointing that the president “waded into what should be a local issue.”

And this afternoon, Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas said the department regrets what took place.

ROBERT HAAS, commissioner, Cambridge Police Department: We deeply regret the situation, including Sergeant Crowley, from the standpoint that, obviously, we never wished this ever happened. And we’re, again, trying to reassess what happened. We’re trying to take a greater perspective of what took place and again learn what we can from the situation and move on.

Incident shows "a lack of training"

Joseph Thomas, Jr.
Chief, Southfield Police Department
When I saw this, first thing that went through my mind is a lack of training. That incident that occurred to that professor could and should have been handled differently.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, President Obama told ABC News he understood Sergeant Crowley is an outstanding police officer and that he was surprised by the controversy surrounding his earlier comments.

For more on all this, I'm joined by Antwi Akom, professor of environmental sociology and urban education in the Africana Studies Department at San Francisco State University, and Joseph Thomas, Jr., chief of police for Southfield, Michigan. With 35 years of police experience, he's also an adjunct professor of political science at Eastern Michigan University.

Chief Thomas, you heard no less than the president of the United States say there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately and that's just a fact. Do you agree with him that it's indisputable?

JOSEPH THOMAS, JR., chief, Southfield Police Department: I think that there are some studies out there that this does happen in some areas, in some communities, but let's not get too far away from this incident, because this is what we're talking about. This is why we're here. If not, we're talking about a larger study.

This incident, as a law enforcement executive, when I saw this, first thing that went through my mind is a lack of training. That incident that occurred to that professor could and should have been handled differently.

Now, that does not mean that this officer did something that was against the law. I'm not going to go that far, because I don't know the totality of the circumstances.

But I do know, from my personal standpoint, my law enforcement career standpoint, based upon my working with students and colleges and university settings, and I also own my own consulting company, G.I. Consulting (ph), that case or that incident should have been handled differently.

There's no doubt about it; there's a lack of training there.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Chief, just so I understand you, you're saying by definition, if a mistaken call of a crime in progress occurs and it's understood by both parties in an encounter that there is not a crime in progress, if somebody ends up getting arrested and led away in handcuffs, this wasn't handled properly?

JOSEPH THOMAS, JR.: It could have been handled differently. I don't use the word improperly. With the proper training, it could have been handled differently.

This is why I made the statement in the copy of today's USA Today that, when you began to react and interact with a police officer in a negative manner, then the humanistic sides take place and you can sometimes I talk to my people of color about police demeanor and police training.

And you can talk your way into a ticket. I've seen people talk their way in jail by saying things to antagonize the police on the scene. And that could have been what happened here.

So we've got to be extremely careful and look at this case by itself, and then we voice our opinion. If not, we're going to start talking about what happened in the '50s, the '40s, the '30s and '60s, and you won't solve this problem.

I've seen a lot of cases, cases throughout this country, where we saw emotions and we saw personal frame of reference and we don't solve the problem. If we don't look at this from a training standpoint and take a look at what those officers are being taught in the academy and their enrichment training and what they're taught to do, this incident will reoccur, if you don't change the policy and training, rituals, beliefs and values of people that are in the law enforcement industry. That's what I'm saying about this incident.

Profiling a "rampant problem"

Antwi Akom
San Francisco State University
In Professor Gates' situation and to a lesser degree in mine we had the prestige and the resources where we were able to have the charges dropped, first because we were innocent, but we also had the resources to fight this racial profiling.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn to Professor Akom at this point. Professor Akom, does a black man have to handle an encounter with the police different from any other American?

ANTWI AKOM, San Francisco State University: No, I think that we should all be handling encounters with the police by following exactly what the police say. At the same time, I think that racial profiling is a rampant problem and that we need to very much be focused on making sure that racial profiling i.e., the criminal suspicion of people based on race there's a psychological impact that I think that we need to be concerned about and that that this is actually broader than a law enforcement problem.

This is actually a problem that is also a public health problem. But in terms of reaction, I think that, yes, black Americans are no different than any other American, and we need to respond in the same way.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you feel that you've been profiled?

ANTWI AKOM: Certainly. My case, I was racially profiled. I think Professor Gates' case is a clear case, again, of racial profiling.

In my particular case, I went to my office. I had two children in my car, 5 and 7 years old. I ran up to my office to get books, came out of my office, was approached by an officer, was arrested, was taken to jail, taken away from my children, strip-searched, thrown in jail, and what I learned in jail was that there are many people in jail who don't belong there, there are many people who have been racially profiled in jail and who are innocent and are in jail for other crimes, and I also learned that people actually deserve a second chance, right?

Many people deserve a second chance, particularly people who've been racial profiled. Racial profiling is a major problem, different than differential sentencing, because racial profiling at the heart of it, what we're talking about are innocent people who are being arrested, who are being convicted, who are being incarcerated, who are having stains put on their record, sometimes for a lifetime.

In Professor Gates' situation and to a lesser degree in mine we had the prestige and the resources where we were able to have the charges dropped, first because we were innocent, but we also had the resources to fight this racial profiling.

But there are many other cases and many other individuals who don't have those same resources who have these stains on their record who are being locked away inside our jails and prisons. And this a real problem for our criminal enforcement agencies, as well as a public health problem.

Responding to new demographics

Joseph Thomas, Jr.
Chief, Southfield Police Department
If we concentrate on too big of a problem, it will not be addressed. What we need to do right now is take a look at how police officers are being trained.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Chief, you talked about policing and practices and standards. Do you say that racial profiling is not a big problem in American policing?

JOSEPH THOMAS, JR.: No, I did not tell you that. I said the training standards needs to be updated as our customer base changes.

This is not the country that we knew or we had 10 years ago. The demographics have drastically changed. We must change how we approach people and how we deal with people and be cognizant of those types of issues when we are out enforcing the law or doing what we do as police officers.

In my dissertation, I address that. Some of the things that was brought to your attention earlier, you know, I concur. I'm chief of police in Southfield, Michigan. Southfield, Michigan, is in Oakland County. I've been there for 18 years.

Eighteen years ago, Oakland County was probably all depends on what study you looked at was either the second- or the third-richest county in the nation. When I took that job, I made the front page of USA Today. It took almost 10 years for people to realize that I was a police chief of color, because I was a chief in Oakland County.

Well, does it exist? Yes. But if I were to play that card every time something happened to me in a council meeting or something happened to me in the mayor's office, you know what? I would not be able to do my job, and I would cause a bigger issue, and I can't solve that problem.

What I'm trying to say if we concentrate on too big of a problem, it will not be addressed. What we need to do right now is take a look at how police officers are being trained. Are they updating their training?

Let me back up a little bit. Do you realize that, in the law enforcement industry in most states, that you can be certified once as a police officer and be a police officer for the rest of your life? I hate to have my medical doctor train the same way. That's what I'm saying. We need to update the training.

Let me go back. When I first saw that, what did I tell you? That could have been handled differently. It didn't mean that the officer committed a crime, but he could have handled that situation differently and defused that whole thing with the proper training, with the proper policies in place. That could have been avoided, and it was not.

RAY SUAREZ: Chief Thomas, Professor Akom...

JOSEPH THOMAS, JR.: Now, I'm not trying to demonize the officer; I'm just saying that I've seen this before.

RAY SUAREZ: Chief Thomas and Professor Akom, gentlemen, we have to go. Thank you.

JOSEPH THOMAS, JR.: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

ANTWI AKOM: Thank you.