Professor's Arrest Puts Racial Profiling in the Spotlight

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.

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