Obama Cambridge Police
Flap Totally Avoidable
by Russell Ruffin      Law Enforcement Media  

When President Obama declared that "Cambridge (Massachusetts) Police acted stupidly" in the arrest of a Harvard professor, he immediately created a national debate that has become harmful to the presidency and the law enforcement community.

Officers all over America have expressed their outrage over the President's characterization of the Cambridge Police Department, which effectively threw the entire agency under the bus and into the media spotlight.

It all began on July 16, when Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. returned to his home from a trip to China.  Gates said he had trouble with his front door, so he ended up having to force it open.   A neighbor, fearing a break-in was in progress, called police.  When Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrived, Gates was already inside his home.  The exact details of what transpired after that have been the source of a dispute between Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, but everyone knows the result, Gates ended up under arrest on charges of disorderly conduct.  The charges were dropped within a week, but the die had already been cast, and no matter what anyone does, it can’t be taken back.

Starting with his campaign for the White House, candidate Obama proved to be an effective orator, carefully measuring all of his remarks, sounding very presidential.  In all but a few incidents, including his "putting lipstick on a pig" remark, Obama had managed to vigilantly calibrate his public comments, until his July 22 nationally televised news conference.  In that situation he sounded less like a president and more like a candidate.

The Chicago Sun-Times reporter asked the president this question:  “Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you?  And what does it say about race relations in America?”

As Obama responded, he qualified what he was about to proclaim by stating, “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. What's been reported, though, is…,” and he proceeded to give a version of events that has since become divisive and disputed.

It was Obama’s account of events that sparked the national debate.  His comment that, “Cambridge police acted stupidly,” caused police everywhere to close ranks in defense of their Cambridge counterparts. 

Steve Killiam, president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association told reporters, “Cambridge police are not stupid. It is a great department. I think everyone that knows us knows that.”

President Obama conceded that he helped fuel the controversy.  "Because this has been ratcheting up and I helped to contribute to ratcheting it up, I want to make it clear that in my choice of words I unfortunately gave the impression I was maligning the Cambridge police department and Sergeant Crowley and I could have calibrated those words differently," he said.

Obama, who stopped short of an apology, then invited both Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates to have a beer with him at the White House.

When the so-called “Beer Summit” took place, all of the parties’ behavior was admirable.  President Obama had prefaced the meeting by asserting:  “This is not a summit. This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day, and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other." 

When the meeting ended, Sgt. Crowley sounded more presidential than Obama.  Crowley told reporters he was grateful for the overwhelming show of support that he has received since the arrest.  He characterized the meeting as a positive step.  “We agreed to move forward. We spent a lot time discussing the future," Crowley said. When asked about his feelings toward Professor Gates, Crowley remained diplomatic, "He brings a lot to the table, and I hope I do as well." Professor Gates did not talk to reporters after the meeting.

President Obama has conceded that the controversy was fueled, partially, because of his choice of words.  While it is commendable that President Obama was willing to admit that he could have dealt with the situation differently, the practical solution would have been to avoid the controversy altogether.  Obama could have followed one simple precaution that police officers and police spokespersons observe when they talk to the media, and that is, don’t draw conclusions if you don’t have all the facts.  If you ever have to start off your answer to a controversial question with the words, “I don’t know all the facts,” your next line should be:  “so it wouldn’t be fair for me to make a comment on that.”

Russell Ruffin is an Emmy Award Winning Broadcast News veteran and news media consultant who teaches Law Enforcement Officers how to communicate effectively with the media. www.LawEnforcementMediaTraining.com