July 24th, 2009
03:02 PM ET
11 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. TJ

    For those who call the President a racist. is a racist. I dont thank this
    has anything to do with race, but people are making it a race thing.
    Think about it what would you do. President did the right thing now we do the right that and let it be

    July 24, 2009 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  2. Just Say No to Socialism

    Obama will never apologize. Then he would have to admit he was wrong and that is not possible. This guys love for the media and being in front of a camera is a joke. Get some things done for the country will you!

    July 24, 2009 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  3. Limit Congressmen, Representatives, Senators to two terms like the President!!!

    If I was Gates I'd have refused his call. Who wants to speak with a radical racist pig.

    July 24, 2009 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  4. George

    Wow, Obama is a leader on the race issue. As soon as he is in some sort of political peril over race, he's the first one to stand up and make an appropriate comment. As soon as the heat was unbearable in the Reverend Wright issue, he said the right thing (well kind of). As soon as it became unbearable in the Cambridge police issue, he said the right thing.

    Change you can believe in.

    July 24, 2009 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  5. Martin (Austin, Tx)

    Each of us has one or more moments in a given day when we are not at our best. How we handle those moments determine the effect we have on those around us. (See the 1993 movie “Falling Down” starring Michael Douglas.)

    Police, being human as are we, are not exempt from these dips in their peak performance. Clearly, this is a situation involving two people who are not at their best. The professor (likely tired) has just returned from a long plane ride to his front door that doesn’t easily yield to his efforts to open it (likely causing frustration). Once inside his home, police arrive in response to a report of a possible burglary in progress. Upon verification that no crime was being/had been committed, it would seem that the call would be cancelled and the police would exit. Cooler heads should have carried the day. After all, there were other police officers on the scene. And remember, a police officer can phone many friends while the detainee rarely gets to call anyone for assistance.

    It seems that if these men sit down in reasoned discussion, cooler heads will yet carry the day.

    July 24, 2009 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  6. LLL

    Officer JIM CROWley...enough said

    July 24, 2009 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  7. jackie of louisville

    I am so sick of this, everybody is focus on the apology from the President why can't James aka Jim Crow apologize to the professor and we all can move on. By him trying not to apologize that is making a racist, he and Cambridge department need to take a stand. An not that said apology we got the other morning, because she was still trying in her on way to protect James Crawley. Just the President apologize to him he needs to admit that he was wrong too. And I a sure no one cares if he voted for President Obama the election is over and alot more didn't vote either but he is still the President

    July 24, 2009 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  8. Capt Smash, Salt Lake City, Utah

    I think the police need better training on how to defuse scared black people. Mr. Gates is racially sensitize and thinks white people hate him. He probably thinks that whites want to put him in his place. I have learned not all white people are bad or blacks for that matter. However, looking from the white police officer's prospective; it would upset me if someone started a conversation in a racially charged way. White police officers do not like it when black people call them racist.

    I live in Utah among all whites I have learned I must de-sensitize myself in order to live here. Yes we do have a lot of whites that live here that do not like black people. However, I am very successful businessman and high school football coach and do very well here in Utah. Remember we are all Gods Children and I rather love than hate! God Bless You All of you even you Rethuglicans!

    July 24, 2009 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  9. Bryan

    This could have all been avoided if this professor would have shown his ID and been thankful for the police responding to the call of a possible breakin in his neighborhood. This is not profiling by police. They did not follow this man to this home because he was black. They responded to a call of a possible break-in. I have a feeling that the police officer did not respond slower or faster because the caller said it was two black men. He went as fast as he could because he is a police officer responding to the call of duty to serve and protect. No doubt there is still racism in our country today. No sane person could deny this. However, ever incident that happens and, without justification, is blamed on racism does nothing but add to this problem. The man was asked to calm down, and he didn't because he let his arrogance get in the way. Some people cannot let go of being the victim.

    July 24, 2009 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  10. Martin (Austin, Tx)

    Some cities are using community policing which helps police and residents to get to know each other, and to develop better relations. Further, with all of the technology available to law enforcement personnel, the name and photo of the resident of the address could be sent to the responding officers. Surely this would make the situation safer for all involved.

    July 24, 2009 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  11. Reese

    I am not a fan of Obama but he is my President. That was good of him to call and very smart.

    July 24, 2009 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  12. Mike

    It is truly amazing how badly the news media is missing the point on this one. Again. This is not a race issue – this is a police arrogance issue. If you argue with a cop, he arrests you for "disorderly conduct", even if you're in your own home and have documentation to prove it. This is wrong. Why can't you argue with a cop? Apparently, they're not trained well enough to handle it. And still we give them guns.

    It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happened, here: the cop responded to the call, confronted the prof, the prof took exception (probably tired and a bit short-tempered from his trip) to it as racist and got into it with the cop. Instead of backing off, as he should of after confirming the prof was in his own home and not breaking in, the cop got his ego up and arrested the prof for "disorderly conduct", which is pretty ambiguous to say the least. That the cop was out of line was confirmed by the fact that the charges were dropped.

    News flash for the ignorant: the police pull this garbage all the time. They also lie. Repeatedly. The prof is probably embelishing his end of it as well, but the fact is he never should have been arrested in his own home for this in the first place. The cop won't apologize because he doesn't even realize that he was wrong. They've been led to believe that they can do this, which is ridiculous. It's called arrogance, and they need to reign it in. This is not "serving the public". A few of them should be arrested so that they understand the experience a bit better.

    The President should not apologize. His wording was awful, but his intention was correct. The police need to change their conduct, on matters like this and quite a few others, too.

    July 24, 2009 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  13. sarahinfla

    The media are idiots, anything to stir the pot of confusion and drive those ratings. Everyone knows we have major profilling problems the sad part is it cuts both ways whites profile blacks and hispanics and now the whites that dress and talks as there black and hispanic friends do.

    This will continue to be a problem because we are a nation of racist.
    That includes the closet racist would pretend they didn't know it was so bad. Let black officers do some of these type things and listen for the out cry. Then they will want the president to address the matter.

    July 24, 2009 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  14. God bless America

    I wish Obama hadn't said what he said in the first place, but I am very impressed by his efforts to contact both parties involved.

    I feel so proud that we have a president that is willing to own up and be humble. His actions to correct himself and cool down the escalation shows real character and class.

    very impressed.

    July 24, 2009 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  15. Mike

    Guess Obama just lost the vote of th National Association of Police Officers, Firefighters etc...oh, the men and women of the Armed Forces also adhere to the standard , the standard that they like to be treated with respect, equality (and without insult).

    Lots of votes lost for 2012!

    July 24, 2009 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  16. Steve (the real one)

    @LLL July 24th, 2009 4:47 pm ET
    Officer JIM CROWley…enough said
    Sorry but not enough said! Some of us are still awaiting the intelligent portion of your post!

    July 24, 2009 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  17. Walker

    I could say something nice about Obama but after 8 years of hate filled diatribes about Bush/Cheney it will never happen. He made the right decision to call the officer.

    July 24, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  18. Lotta Muni

    What a mess. Shows what happens when Barry speaks without aid of a telepromter.

    July 24, 2009 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  19. Steve (the real one)

    Zman July 24th, 2009 2:51 pm ET
    Don't you apologize Mr PRESIDENT
    He needed to apologize! He condemned WITHOUT THE FACTS! I am not a fan club member but big props for manning up! That I appreciate! None of us have the facts yet most have already taken sides! Ridiculous!

    July 24, 2009 05:09 pm at 5:09 pm |
  20. Fred

    "Acted Stupidly" means the action was Stupid not the departed or officer.

    July 24, 2009 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  21. dave

    You know if you ask for an opinion you might get any answer. I think he did the right thing to explain his position. But the fact is there was never a charge so the case was closed so an opinion was all anyone can give.

    July 24, 2009 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  22. Tim, Roswell GA

    If I am not misteken, he said what the police did was stupid. That is far from calling the police department stupid.

    July 24, 2009 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  23. Last Straw

    Hey Mr. President, Racism is not only subjected to Blacks and Hispanics in this country. There are all ethnicity that receive it White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Russians, Irish, Italians, Muslims etc etc. He would try to make us think that only black people have been suppressed in this country while the Chinese built the entire railroad in the west and lived underground for decades in California but yet they never cry poor us. He needs to stop treating Blacks and Hispanics as if they are more special than anyone else because he wants their vote and treat all races equally. What bothers me most is how the media always tells us he is our first African American president when in reality he is our first Biracial president and not the ladder. They want us to forget he is half white which is racist in of itself. His statement was racist and I will not vote for him again because of it.

    July 24, 2009 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  24. Steve (the real one)

    @Southernstyle July 24th, 2009 4:43 pm ET

    I never owned a slave and I don't owe anybody for something that happened 150 years ago.
    I was never a slave and I don't blame anybody for what happened 150 years ago either! What good what that do? They are all dead! When we blame those in the past we seem to forget Africans helped sale Africans. I don't hear anybody blaming them! Wonder why? JUST BEING HONEST!

    July 24, 2009 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  25. fizzybubly

    No apology needed but disorderly conduct needs to be revised as not to contradict free speech or expression.When people stop and look at the bigger problem here they will realize that they have been walking around with shutters on.The problem is not racism or whites having a tolerance problem with a black man or woman(sorry if i offend, but i don’t believe in the hyphenation of race it’s unAmerican,we are Americans first origin second) identifying that they are victims of a crime or not. The problem is the broad definition of Disorderly Conduct and it’s implications. It originally was a tool to keep the masses from acting in an uncivil manner, but it has turned into an infringement of our free speech and expression. As we have recently seen in the case of Mr. Gates, when the Cambridge police were able to confirm that it was his residence. Mr. Gates was well within his rights to vocalize and express his self on his own front porch. No matter how much the officers pride was hurt by being proven wrong in front of his fellow officers. but that isn’t the case here. What i mean by that is if you disagree with a police officer YOU WILL be arrested,if you raise your voice at an officer who has failed to listen to your complaint of injustice YOU WILL be arrested, if you are not well educated enough to articulate in words other than four letter words out of frustration of not being heard during what is to be believed as injustice YOU WILL be arrested. This is a direct infringement of our free speech and expression. This law doesn’t really apply to society today, being that we are driven to speak against injustice. It’s a new day, a new culture where closed mouths don’t get fed. Every culture was brought up differently, Asians are very docile when it comes to speaking out against injustice due in part to their upbringing in the country from which they came, because they were not allowed to do so fear of reprisal dictates how they act. Latinos tend to keep quite for fear of deportation or wrongful imprisonment. Black America has been fighting for freedom far to long, it’s long overdue for total equality. As for me a white man, born in San Francisco 1971, lived in every ghetto and barrio from the west coast to the east coast, raised by a hippie who has done everything from walking with Rev. King to the DNC 1972 Chicago. My mother instilled in me that you should never judge from pigment but from substance(how you carry yourself). by saying that this is a culturally rich nation and our laws should reflect that. If you say free speech and expression than your laws should not contradict those rights. A revision of this law is in order or we will never be free of misinterpretation of racism and injustice. Revision not Restriction. God Bless America and all that fight for her and reside.

    July 24, 2009 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
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