July 24th, 2009
03:02 PM ET
12 years ago

Obama speaks with Gates' arresting officer

WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama said Friday he told the police officer who arrested an African-American Harvard professor that he did not mean to malign the Cambridge Police Department when he said the department "acted stupidly."

"Because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. (James) Crowley specifically," Obama said. "And I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley."

Obama spoke at the White House daily news briefing, an hour after police unions in Massachusetts called on him to apologize.

He did not apologize for his remark, but repeated that he believed his choice of words was unfortunate.

The president said he continues to believe, "based on what I have heard, that police overreacted," and he also believes that the professor - his friend, Henry Louis Gates Jr. - "probably overreacted as well."

"My sense is you have got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved," he said.

He also rejected the idea that he should not have gotten involved because it is a local issue.

President Obama's full statement after the jump:

THE PRESIDENT: Hey, it's a cameo appearance. Sit down, sit down. I need to help Gibbs out a little bit here.

Q Are you the new press secretary?

THE PRESIDENT: If you got to do a job, do it yourself. (Laughter.)

I wanted to address you guys directly because over the last day and a half obviously there's been all sorts of controversy around the incident that happened in Cambridge with Professor Gates and the police department there.

I actually just had a conversation with Sergeant Jim Crowley, the officer involved. And I have to tell you that as I said yesterday, my impression of him was that he was a outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation - and I told him that.

And because this has been ratcheting up - and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up - I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically - and I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley.

I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved.

The fact that it has garnered so much attention I think is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America. So to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.

What I'd like to do then I make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts - but as I said at the press conference, be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues. And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.

My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what's called a "teachable moment," where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity. Lord knows we need it right now - because over the last two days as we've discussed this issue, I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care. (Laughter.)

I will not use this time to spend more words on health care, although I can't guarantee that that will be true next week. I just wanted to emphasize that - one last point I guess I would make. There are some who say that as President I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because it's a local issue. I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with. The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive - as opposed to negative - understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.

So at the end of the conversation there was a discussion about - my conversation with Sergeant Crowley, there was discussion about he and I and Professor Gates having a beer here in the White House. We don't know if that's scheduled yet - (laughter) - but we may put that together.

He also did say he wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn. (Laughter.) I informed him that I can't get the press off my lawn. (Laughter.) He pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn. (Laughter.) But if anybody has any connections to the Boston press, as well as national press, Sergeant Crowley would be happy for you to stop trampling his grass.

All right. Thank you, guys.

Updated at 3:00 p.m. EDT

Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (295 Responses)
  1. hypocrites_are_everywhere

    BTW, why not also inviting Lucia Phalen, the one who reported the break-in and witnessed the arrest?

    Wouldn't it be nice that Lucia told Prof Gates (and Crowley) that she made a mistake with good intention and that it's nice to meet you as neighbor, Prof. Gates.

    Little things we do could make a big difference, and blame game doesn't make Phalen & Gates better neighbors!

    July 24, 2009 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  2. David Evan

    The President followed up and did the right thing by talking personally to the parties involved. How many people here follow up on their opinions or statements that are well advised or not? How many at least try to do the right thing in action to follow their words?

    What about the President's statements today to change the status quo on education? Is there a word in this e-rag about that? No -CNN has become a populist, sensationalist rag and has lost its original mission of objective investigative journalism. Larry King in particular is nothing more than a Hollywood gossip forum when it used to be about interviews with real meaning.

    July 24, 2009 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  3. Dorothy

    Did the black man in NY trying to comply with police officers by showing his wallet that was shot 41 times family get an apology?

    Did the black man in NY that was sodimized by police officers get an apology?

    Did the black officer who id'd himself as an officer but still beaten by his fellow officers (Boston) get an apology? No, they protecting the "code blue".
    Did the police officers in Boston say they were sorry when Charles Stuart killed his wife and unborn son they were sorry for targeting black males in the city until this coward killed himself?
    This entire incident is very unfortunate. I am just glad the officer was not trigger happy like some officers can get and this would be an entirely different situation. Mind you now , I said some officers.

    July 24, 2009 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  4. John M in NoHo, CA

    He spoke too soon, erred and 'fessed up. But his explanation was on the money. It was as deep as his speech about Rev. Wright and racism in America. We white people can intellectualize the feelings of blacks and others profiled. But some things you just have to feel - I mean feel - to really get it.

    July 24, 2009 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  5. jr

    The sad part about this incident is that it will happen again.

    July 24, 2009 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  6. Florida Joe

    The police department or whoever dropped the charges. Why? If President Obama can not comment on an arrest that was not upheld by the police department then what can he talk about. this was not a pending issue, whoever is the cop's boss decided his arrest of Mr Gates was not something they could or would like to support. They decided the officer's action was STUPID. It is clear that the cop did not have to arrest Mr Gates and to assume that Mr Gate just flew off in a rant cursing the officer who was polite and professional is what is really RACIST.

    July 24, 2009 06:46 pm at 6:46 pm |
  7. Fed Up

    For those who haven't read the police report. The 3 officers, who were not all white either, were leaving the house. Satisfied with the ID Gates showed them, when Gates first refused to show his ID. Gates then followed them out of the house and was still yelling and calling out names and rude remarks. That's when he was arrested.

    Anyone would have been arrested talking to a police officer that way. Sorry to pop the balloon here.

    July 24, 2009 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  8. gina

    Obama should apologize to the Cambridge cops, all others who put their lives on the line every day, and all of the american people, because he did'nt know all the facts, he should have not even commented.. He is truly a race baiter. Man, when are people gonna wake up? This guy is bad news. I think that he wants a race war. After all, he is the great community organizer for all who will listen to him. 🙁

    July 24, 2009 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  9. Neal

    There is no one more racist the one who calls for every comment a racist cammen or action. This President is starting to defend grounds for his onw race not fir the amercian people. They are the racist when any confrontation with authorities are based on racism. Trying to make them look special treatment or with HANDICAP and they need a royalty treatment.

    July 24, 2009 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  10. Matthew in Oregon

    How spineless. This is why he will never be great - he wants to please everyone. He should have stuck by his assertion.

    For a second I thought he was for real.

    July 24, 2009 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  11. Garth, NY

    That was pretty big of the president because I would tell the cop to go take a flying leap, the man was in his own home. That said, we have a good man in the White House. A much better man than I am.

    July 24, 2009 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  12. chris

    this is how one man's up and defuses a situation.

    What an excellent job at the press conference today calling both people. I especially liked the idea of the officer suggesting all 3 have a beer at the Whitehouse.

    One word class. The wingnuts (left and right) will freak when they see all 3 of them enjoying a beer, can't wait

    July 24, 2009 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  13. Matt

    Why does the Right hate the Constitution?

    This was a violation by law enforcement of both 1st and 4th Amendment rights guaranteed to us. It was, in one word, stupid.

    Also, to you wingnuts, he didn't "call the police stupid" he said they "acted stupidly". Smart and honorable people can and do act stupidly. Like both the officer and the victim in this case.

    Still, the officer had no basis for arrest. If you can't feel FREE in your own home and on private property, then you have a police state.

    July 24, 2009 07:34 pm at 7:34 pm |
  14. meatgrinda

    He spoke "stupidly".

    July 24, 2009 07:34 pm at 7:34 pm |
  15. Obama is a Mistake

    Obama does not have enough character to apologize.

    July 24, 2009 07:43 pm at 7:43 pm |
  16. Apology from the cops? Yeah, right

    President Obama has once again shown that he has way more class than either Sgt. Crowley or any of the nattering nabobs criticizing him.

    Now how about Crowley & the Cambridge PD stepping up and apologizing to Dr. Gates?

    Don't hold your breath.

    July 24, 2009 07:43 pm at 7:43 pm |
  17. Southernstyle

    got you stirred up didn't it rewan. mission accomplished

    July 24, 2009 07:44 pm at 7:44 pm |
  18. Sherry

    I think the mainstream media is primarily responsible for this feeding frenzy. Had they not been so intent on besting each other to get the story out there and had investigated the story more BEFORE reporting to get all the facts, I don't think this firestorm would have been so intense. THEN, they continue to overplay it, when things have the potential of settling down, keeping people stirred up. I consider the mainstream media "coat hangers." They get people fighting each other, then stand back and watch the fallout. How about responsible reporting, rather than sensationalistic reporting?

    July 24, 2009 07:49 pm at 7:49 pm |
  19. aware

    The arrogant one can't apologize. That would take wisdom and humility! 🙂

    July 24, 2009 07:51 pm at 7:51 pm |
  20. Kai in ATL

    Obama was completely correct in what he said initially. First of all he never stated or even implied that the Cambridge police were racist. So he never played the race card, but the police and the NRC did. I watched the Cambridge police department's press conference. They and Crowley have a lot of nerve! All I can say is, "A hit dog always hollers!"

    July 24, 2009 10:09 pm at 10:09 pm |
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