Boston Cop Fired for Racial Slur in Email

Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis said Officer Justin Barrett was fired yesterday for violating department rules when he sent the e-mail on July 22, 2009.  In the email, Barrett called Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates a “jungle monkey.”  The email was sent following the incident in Cambridge last summer when Prof. Gates was arrested in his own home on a disorderly conduct charge.  “(Gates’) first priority should be to get off the phone and comply with police, for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a … jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance,” the e-mail said.

Barrett, for his part, said at the time, “I am not a racist.” Barrett sent the email to several individuals and to the Boston Globe.     He went on to explain, saying, “It was a poor choice of words. I did not mean to offend anyone.”

No doubt some will argue that Barrett’s  “right free speech” has been violated with this decision, but from my perspective it seems like an appropriate step on the part of the Boston Police Department, and a step in the right direction for those interested in equal protection under the law.

Prof. Gates’ Arrest, Cambridge Police and Racism


(image from here)

News about the arrest of Harvard Professor Gates seems to be flowing out of the news-machine-spigot at full force these days.   At least part of the story seems to be shifting toward Crowley, the Cambridge cop who was centrally involved in Gates’ arrest.  Here, I’ll go through a few of the main links to various parts of the story, and then – as we do here – draw on some social science research to see if that can illuminate what’s going on here.

Several people are defending Crowley.  Some of these defenders are not surprising, such as this blogger who sees Crowley – a racial profiling expert for the Cambridge police – as being treated unfairly because he is white. Other Crowley defenders are somewhat more surprising, such as Dr. Boyce Watkins, an African American professor at Syracuse University and often ardent critic of the racial status quo, who writes:

After my battles with Bill O’Reilly made me the most hated professor on the Syracuse University campus last year, I always thought I was the radical guy in the room. But in this case, I must encourage temperance and fairness. Whether it has killed slaves in the past or destroyed careers in the present, the mob mentality has never been good for America.

From a centrist perspective, the Christian Science Monitor has a piece called, “Gates Arrest: Racial Profiling or ‘Tempest in a Teapot,'” and the staid CSM comes down decidedly on the ‘tempest in a teapot’ side of this.  The CSM emphasizes “bad behavior on both sides,” as in this quote from a representative of the Cambridge Police:

“It wasn’t Professor Gates’s best moment, and it was not the Cambridge Police Department’s best moment.”

Then, the CSM includes this line which is the heart of their argument in this article:

Law enforcement analysts are inclined to agree, suggesting that the incident may have been only a “tempest in a teapot.”

Unfortunately, the evidence from the ‘law enforcement analysts’ – one crim professor a radio talk show how and a legal blogger – is pretty thin.   The evidence they glean from quote by the crim professor tend to be critical of Crowley’s actions, as in:

“The best motto for a police officer is that sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” says George Kirkham, a former police officer and now a professor of criminology at Florida State University. “People wind up venting, and you have to let them vent.” “We are a country founded on Jeffersonian ideals, and people don’t like government in their lives,” says Professor Kirkham. “[Police] need to be aware of that.”

So, here, Kirkham is basically saying that Crowley should not have arrested Gates no matter how “tumultuous” his behavior.  The key phrase here is the use of “Jeffersonian ideals.”   Now, I’m assuming the ideals to which Kirkham is referring here are the ones about government not interfering in people’s lives, and not the ones that Jefferson wrotes about in Notes on the State of Virginia in which he argued for the inherent inferiority of blacks, including (presumably) Sally Hemmings, the woman he enslaved, raped, and her children by Jefferson.   Still, I think Kirkham is right here, it would be a good idea to keep these latter Jeffersonian values in mind when dealing with anyone and particularly with African Americans.  My point here is that even the *expert* in this case is so completely steeped in the white racial frame that he doesn’t even realize the multiple connotations of what he’s saying to this CSM reporter. And, for their part, the CSM reporters and editors never step outside the white racial frame to evaluate this case even though this is supposedly an “analysis” piece.

A better source for “law enforcement analyst” might be Lowry Heussler, who has worked on police-misconduct cases in Massachusetts, the state where the Gates arrest happened.   In a post for the blog The Reality-Based Community, Heussler provides a meticulous analysis of Crowley’s actions based on Crowley’s own words (the report he wrote about the arrest):

Read Crowley’s report and stop on page two when he admits seeing Gates’s Harvard photo ID. I don’t care what Gates had said to him up until then, Crowley was obligated to leave. He had identified Gates. Any further investigation of Gates’ right to be present in the house could have been done elsewhere. His decision to call HUPD seems disproportionate, but we could give him points for thoroughness if he had made that call from his car while keeping an eye on the house. Had a citizen refused to leave Gates’ home after being told to, the cops could have made an arrest for trespass.

Heussler goes on from there, offering a thoroughly devastating critique of Crowley’s actions as police – apart from the racial context – and based on Crowley’s on words.   Basically, what he finds is that Crowley gets pissed off that Gates has accused him of racism, then works to escalate the situation by “inviting” Gates out onto the porch where he is arrested.

Now, to the social science.  Henry Ferrell at Crooked Timber has a nice post called “Discretion and Arrest Power,” in which he discusses the relevance of Peter Moskos’ book, Cop in the Hood. Moskos, a sociologist and a CUNY professor at John Jay College, spent a year as a beat officer in Baltimore. In his book, Moskos discusses the “zone of discretion” that cops have and the ways that they try to expand their authority beyond that which they are legally authorized to do (Moskos, p. 117-118). In Moskos’ account of being Baltimore police officer (as Farrell recounts it) he both (a) uses a verbal invitation to induce the targeted individual to leave the building, and (b) then uses the attention of bystanders to generate a charge of disorderly conduct.

Crowley, for his part, maintains that he is “not a racist” and refuses to apologize.  And, I think it’s quite possible that Crowley did not have any intention to racially discriminate against anyone when he showed up at the house on Ware Street responding to a call.    I do, however, think that the confluence of events and factors shaped his response to the situation so that it played out in ways that are consistent with centuries of racial discrimination in this country.   First, there’s the white racial frame that shaped Crowley’s view of what was happening and what kind of a “danger” Professor Gates posed.  Second, there’s the “cop in the hood” mentality in which police are often forced to use their discretion to decide what to do in a situation that may seem unclear.  Third, there is Crowley’s “reputation” as a “racial profiling expert” and Gates charge of “racism.”  This, according to one experts’ speculation, pissed off Crowley and that’s where the escalation occurred.  Now, Crowley – and his defenders – seem entrenched in the effort to shore up Crowley’s “racial innocence” and thus redeem him as a ‘good’ (read: not racist) white person.

This will, I predict, continue to be a huge news story.   And, much of the coverage will be focused on Crowley and his supposed “racial innocence.”   I find this a disappointing focus on this story because by making it a story about Crowley, it completely individualizes – and ultimately trivializes – the problem here. I hope that others – possibly Professor Gates leading the way – will use this incident to rerfocus our attention on efforts to change the racial inequality at the heart of our criminal justice system, and indeed, at the heart of our society.

Racism in Cambridge: Harvard Prof. Gates Arrested (UPDATED)

Arriving home after a recent trip to China and struggling to get into his own home in Cambridge because of a jammed door, esteemed scholar of African American Studies and Harvard Professor, Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr., was arrested by police.   According to one report (h/t @BlackInformant for a couple of these links), this incident began when someone alerted police:

A witness, 40-year-old Lucia Whalen of Malden, had alerted the cops that a man was “wedging his shoulder into the front door” at Gates’ house “as to pry the door open,” police reported.

None of the reports I’ve read online describe Ms. Whalen’s race,  or why someone from Malden was doing calling the cops about a man entering his own home in Cambridge, but apparently it was her call that began this series of events.  Here’s what happened next, according to several reports, this one from HuffingtonPost:

By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.

“Why, because I’m a black man in America?” Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him,” the officer wrote.

Gates said he turned over his driver’s license and Harvard ID – both with his photos – and repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the officer, who refused. He said he then followed the officer as he left his house onto his front porch, where he was handcuffed in front of other officers, Gates said in a statement released by his attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, on a Web site Gates oversees,

As this story has begun to get out on the web in the last 12-24 hours, it seems to be touching off a tsunami of outrage at the persistence of racial inequality in the U.S., even for one of the most well-known and accomplished scholars.  If this could happen to Skip Gates, at his home in Cambridge, Mass., it does not speak well for the state of racial progress in the country as a whole.   As Rev. Al Sharpton said,  “If this can happen at Harvard, what does it say about the rest of the country?”

But, make no mistake, this outrage is not universally shared.   Almost as soon as this story broke, the undertow of white backlash to the reality of racism began to counter the outrage.  For example, Bruce Maiman, writing at The Examiner, contends that the Cambridge police were just doing their job, responding to a call about a break-in to a home, and that Prof. Gates escalated the situation.  Here’s Maiman:

So I ask you: Who’s the person who caused this encounter? Professor Gates is now being represented by another distinguished law professor from Harvard, Charles Ogletree, and they’re going to claim that this cop was racist and mishandled this situation because the fact that a black male was involved.
I don’t see any racism, do you? Tell me where? No names were called. Nobody was hassled or pushed around. Legitimate requests were made and cooperation was not forthcoming from a man, Henry Louis Gates, who know better than most people on this planet what happens when you escalate a confrontation with the police. But he does it anyway.
Is there racial profiling in America? Sure there is. But if you justify the behavior of Henry Louis Gates because other black men have been hassled by other police officers unfairly and thus you assume every black man has a right to a chip on his shoulder every time he meets a cop, you are asking for trouble.

This doesn’t appear to be racism. It sounds to me like a colossal case of extraordinarily bad judgment on the part of a distinguished African American historian who happens to teach at Harvard, and who certainly should’ve known better.

Here, Maiman’s interpretation of these events is completely steeped in the white racial frame.   He says, “I don’t see any racism” and, of course, he can’t from the WRF.   He only sees a black man “with a chip on his shoulder,” not the racist behavior of the cop.   Maiman further diminishes Gates by referring to him as someone “who happens to teach at Harvard” and questions his judgment because he “certainly should’ve known better.”   Known better than to what, try and enter his own home? Maiman is simply wrong on the facts here, and wrong on his interpretation of the events.   Maiman is like other whites, as philosopher Charles W. Mills writes, “unable to see the world he has created,” unable to see how his not-seeing-racism contributes to the problem of racial inequality.

The research on the racial inequality in policing, arrest, and incarceration in the U.S. is starkly clear (as we’ve recounted on this blog hundreds of times):  those who are black or brown, particularly men, are much more likely to be stopped, frisked, harrassed, arrested and convicted than whites.    And, this inequality in criminal ‘justice’ is part of a larger pattern of racial inequality that operates systematically throughout U.S. institutions.  The irony, for those that have followed Gates’ scholarship closely, is that he has tended to downplay the significance of institutional racism in the contemporary U.S.   Reports are that Gates’ is “shaken” by this experience, as anyone would be.  This is a horrifying, and yet all too common, experience for black men in this country.   Perhaps Gates’ next volume will be called “Harvard Professor, Still a Suspect.”

More good sociological analysis on this case (and others) from City College Prof. Dumi Lewis, here.

Update 12:07pmET: Charges Against Prof. Gates Dropped, according to one report.  Do click the link to check out 1) the photo of Gates on his own front porch in hand-cuffs and 2) the racist comments that follow.