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. Fed Up

    The President needs to apologize. He made and assumption he called the Cambridge Police Dept. stupid, and we all know what happens when we assume. That is over the line, especially from the President of the United States of America. He didn't even know all the facts. Just one guy calling another racist and we are all supposed to believe it. I think the officers involved handled the situation the best they could now that we know the facts, and would have done the same if it was a man of any race. Gates is the one who overracted, and should be ashamed of his actions. It's getting to the point now that if a white man arrests a black man it's racist, and they are shamed on. I thought we were beyond this in 2009.

    July 24, 2009 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  2. Marc

    Zero – Prove you wrong? Oh come one, give us something harder to do like ask us '2 X 2', because THAT would be harder to do than prove you wrong.

    July 24, 2009 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  3. Penny

    People are stunned to hear the President admit that there is still racisim is this country. Maybe "stupidly" was not the word to use but I think it was a very honest emotion. If my friend had been handled as Mr. Gates was (remembering he was just returning from overseas and probably a bit cranky) then I would stand up for him. He is the police officers job to diffuse the situation. He was in his own home and I truly would like to know if the woman who called it in would have done the same if two white men were trying to enter.

    July 24, 2009 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  4. Bob Deskins

    If the professor had been white he would have never been disgraced by the officers (They would have not handcuffed him in public) Once a white PROFESSOR had told the officer he lived there, the incident would have been over.
    First if the professor had been white The Profiler would not have called police.

    July 24, 2009 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  5. rewan

    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.
    What an idiotic statement. Have you ever heard of the jim crow laws. This country was segregated for years and blacks and minorities had little to no rights. So no you didn't own any slaves but as a whole whites still benefited from it even years after slavery officially ended. It's comments like this and people like you that prove race is still an issue in this country. I immigrated here legally 30 years ago from England and even I have a greater sense of your history than you'll ever had. What Obama spoke of is the history of mistrust that exist it didn't just appear out of thin air or in a vacuum. Open you eyes or just keep burying your head and denying the facts at hand.

    July 24, 2009 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  6. hoopsnadar

    The problem starts when people start seeing the skin color rather than seeing a police officer and a suspect. I am from a third world country and even in my country a president will not stoop down to this level. Definitely not presidential!

    July 24, 2009 05:29 pm at 5:29 pm |
  7. Bill

    Mr. President:

    Your did Nothing Wrong by Saying, Cambridge Police Department "Acted Stupidly".

    When You Said these Words, NO ONE DIED OR INJURED.


    1.....4300 US TROOPS Killed in Unjust Iraq War.
    2.....25000 US TROOPS Injured in Unjust Iraq War.

    July 24, 2009 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  8. Zero.

    I always think about the Old Bogart Movie. When three convicts kest a family hostage in their home..

    July 24, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  9. George

    Martin (Austin, Tx),

    You are mostly right. Except that not only was Gates tired from traveling, my guess is that he is also jaded from 50+ years of his life studies. He's been looking at situations like this through a lense all of his life. He has lost objectivity.

    July 24, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  10. Greg

    Obama was initially correct,but the role of police is to terrorize the black community and help keep alive the legacy of Jim Crowe.and help put people in the for profit prison system while the real criminals go free(the real criminals would be the ones who make the laws and the generals of the military industrial complex).
    Nothing is new.The cop simply did his job.
    Now Obama is finding it hard to seperate him from the role he plays of society which sponsorship of the ruling class and all it's laws.
    Occasionally black people themselves,like Condolleeza Rice or Clarence Thomas(who are millionaires)are agents to the system that profits killing people of color in their own country and around the globe.They have both inflicted such racist policies.
    Obama has stepped into this role however willingly or not.
    These are facts you wil not figure out just by watching nonsense like CNN.

    July 24, 2009 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  11. George

    By the way moderator, it's good to know that when I post as George I can say the exact same thing that I can't when I post as Tim.

    July 24, 2009 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  12. Jelo33

    Citizens Mark today as one of the saddest days, when Americans lost their right to privacy.,
    No we really have big Brother Government, when the Police can come into your home/bedroom and arrest you because he doesn't like how you are acting in your home.
    I know the Democrats love this opportunity to get into your homes/bedrooms, now we will never get them out.
    This dispute between Obama and the police is a fake one that just takes away citizens rights. as their boss he wins either way, but we lose our rights either way.
    Now we have the Obama Police State

    July 24, 2009 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  13. makesUwonder

    John July 24th, 2009 2:48 pm ET

    CRIME IN USA is all because of the Highhandedness of the Police.

    Our Police is the Most ill Trained, Arrogant, Low I.Q and Bunch of Idiots.

    I am an White law abiding Citizen and never involved in any Crime all my life. My Neighbor is Hispanic and has 2 Teenage Boys. These boys drink and may be take drugs.

    These boys Play Basketball at 12:00 in the night with their father. I cannot sleep. All the time the Ball comes to my property and hits my windows. It even broke my Porch Light.

    I called the Police and they came. Can anybody imagine what the 2 Police Officers told me?


    I am a Lawyer. I did not want to teach law to the Police Officers. Law does not Expect me to Withdraw from my House. Law does not expect People to be Cowards. City and County Law prohibits Nuisance. Noise Nuisance is Prohibited

    Well, you know John police departments all over the country are hiring. Why don't you apply, get hired on (if you can) and do a better job. Fix the problem John, join the police department and stop complaining.

    July 24, 2009 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  14. Disgusted with Media

    Anyone care to guess what group continually polls below Congress? The Media......other than those inside their bubble they are dispised throughout the majority of the country. Just tell us what the news is...were smart enough to figure it out without commentary. Hey CNN can you hear that noise? It's the sound of televisions changing channels to watch FOX news.

    July 24, 2009 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  15. Disgusted with Media

    How about do a poll of Americans about how they feel about the Media?

    July 24, 2009 05:42 pm at 5:42 pm |
  16. triletter

    Having read the officers police report, I don't think the President was wrong in his assertion. While Mr. Gates could have handled it a bit better, the police officer invited him on to the porch of his own house there by the police making it a public spectacle. This is even after acknowledging in his own report that Mr. Gates was in his own house. Then the police officer had to save face. He was wrong. Eleven years is plenty of time to become jaded and get absorbed in the power the police can abuse. Once the police had verified he lived there the ONLY response by the police was to leave – no matter what the individual was saying.

    July 24, 2009 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  17. Joe

    I am watching cnn ,for some unknown reason" and I just witnessed two apparent idiots praising obama for not apologizing to the Cambridge police officers. What is this country coming to. An incident like this just fuels the racial tensions that we need to eliminate.

    July 24, 2009 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
  18. Sniffit

    Stupid question in the first place.

    Answer it = GOPers fanning flames of the racial divide.

    Don't answer it = GOPers claiming he voted "present".

    At least he was honest and didn't lean over the podium and give us a disingenuous smirk like Captain Misinformation and his puppeteer Darth Torture while lying to our faces.

    July 24, 2009 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  19. Zero.

    Yet CNN still demand Respect for a Speck of Dirt..

    July 24, 2009 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  20. Obama only creates TAXES

    I will say it Obama, your remarks were RACIST and DISCRIMINATORY towards a WHITE police officer.

    That just proves to me along with your administration pics that you and your administration are RACIST AGAINST WHITES

    July 24, 2009 06:12 pm at 6:12 pm |
  21. Obama only creates TAXES

    people want polls, bet the blacks think the white officer was racist, but I will bet the whites think Obama is racist and the white officer was in his rights.

    July 24, 2009 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
  22. Tony

    Interestingly, Gates lawyers are going to find people who will try to tear down this officer. What they need to do is drop this and both move on. However, Gates will need this to write a book. The officer will continue to work his job.

    Gates takes no responsibility at all. How sad he cannot see he did NOTHING wrong. Ths is what is wrong with blacks who push this type of racisim. Everyone is a racist and the media takes the bait. Sharpton will jockey with Jackson to get involved.

    July 24, 2009 06:16 pm at 6:16 pm |
  23. Ricardo Williams

    Corrupt, racist police officers. I was visiting a white friend of mine in Rochester NY and someone called the police to her house over a disagreement. When the white police showed up, she shouted at him and told him to leave her property. He apologized to her and resolved the issue quickly outside and left. Now a black man gets treated differently in his own home. The wrongs of America, Standby idly and watch the poor suffer. We need the Healthcare bill now.

    July 24, 2009 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  24. Stop the Robber Baron Insurance Companies and The Republicans they Bribe

    Call your member of congress and demand they pass health care reform with a govenment option.

    July 24, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  25. Bob

    "And I could have calibrated those words differently."

    Sheesh. For Pete's Sake, Mr. President, a more simple "I'm Sorry" would have done well. But you can't actually say it clearly, can you?

    July 24, 2009 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
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