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The little incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts has taken on a life of its own since President Obama declared that the Cambridge police had acted stupidly. Now the president of the Cambridge police union wants President Obama to apologize for his remark.  Should he?  Was he wrong? Could it be that the real truth is that the Cambridge police acted intelligently – perhaps even with a stroke of genius – when they arrested a man, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, for the crime of telling the police to get the Hell off his property?  Clearly, by the time the arrest was made the policeman was well aware that he was arresting the owner of the property and that the original call to 911 had been in error.  No one had broken into Professor Gates’ house after all.

So why was Professor Gates so upset?  Was he unhappy that the Cambridge police were trying to protect his property?  Of course not.  He was upset because he understood that he was being accused of breaking in to his own house and he believed the mistake had been made due to racial prejudice – something with which he is apparently familiar.  So what really happened? Who said what to who and when did they say it?  I’m willing to bet we’ll never know because each side will stick to their version of events.  We can only look at the facts and try to make our own determination of what really happened.

Let’s suppose you are Mr. Gates and you were sitting in your home, watching TV or something,  and the doorbell rings.  It’s a policeman.  The policeman says something like, “Good afternoon sir, we’ve had a report of a break-in at this address.  Are you aware of any break-in here?”

You answer, “No, officer.  I have no idea what you are talking about.  I’m all alone here.”

“I see,” the officer replies and looks at his notepad, “are you Mr. Gates?”

“Yes, I am, sir.”

“OK, would you mind showing me some identification just so I can be sure it’s you that I am talking to?”

“No problem.  There you go,” you  say holding up your ID.

“OK. Thank you very much.  Are you sure there is no one else in the house?  Do you want me to take a look?”

“Oh, no. I’m fine. Everything is fine here.”

“Alright then.  Thank you Mr. Gates. Have a nice day.” The policeman gets back into his car and radios his report and Professor Gates relaxes in an easy chair.

This is not what happened.  Why? Despite the stories from both sides, there is only one plausible explanation: the Cambridge policeman failed to communicate.  He failed to treat Mr. Gates as a person presumed to be innocent.  It’s understandable that this happened – after all there had been a report of a break-in.  Even so, he knew that the person who answered the door was not necessarily the criminal he was looking for. He didn’t have enough information at that time to make a decision.

All Americans expect to be treated by the police as if they are innocent – because they usually are.  The policeman knew this, but he failed to communicate – in fact he did something even worse: he communicated the wrong message. He communicated the message that he believed the homeowner was guilty.  He was wrong.  He then compounded his error by arresting the homeowner for being indignant about being judged without a shred of evidence. The police officer was doubly wrong.  We all have a right to be indignant when confronted by police stupidity, bias, injustice, or worse.

The police officer involved should apologize.  He screwed up.  He made a completely innocent homeowner angry and then compounded the problem by arresting the innocent man for becoming angry – in his own home. He should have just walked away.

Perhaps he should consider another profession, one where you don’t have to communicate.

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