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. Obama is the man

    President Obama, you are and will continue to be a true leader, the best this country's had in a long time. You always take the high road, even when everyone around you is acting stupidly(the press and dumb rethuglicans). Kudo's to you and most Americans can learn alot from you. Bravo!

    July 24, 2009 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  2. Bokchoi

    Hey there Dumbama. Please start reviving the economy, solve the health care issues, bring in immigration reforms, focus on national security and the two wars we are fighting. And stop playing the race card all the time. I did not vote for you so that you can slack off. Next time, I will think twice before I vote for you. So you better start earning my vote for 2012!!

    July 24, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  3. 25 year old, dem

    He did not have to do that but he was the bigger man!!! I wonder hope poeple will spin this one now...."oh he should have never apologized now he looks weak. oh now he admitted to being worng...blah blah blah!!"

    July 24, 2009 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  4. George

    The President didn't have to do this press conference. The arrest of Prof Gates was an abuse of Police Authority. I hope and pray that he sues. It is not illegal to yell at police. Even the President gets yelled at.

    It is about time we put a stop to racial profiling in America.

    July 24, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  5. Mississippi Mike

    The damage is done. Obama sided with the wrong person and looks like a fool for not having his facts straight. He needs to hang up his community organizer hat and start thinking like a president.

    July 24, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  6. Debby

    Good now this thing should be put to bed by the media.

    July 24, 2009 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  7. John Riggs

    Why not say to the country that he "mis spoke", why say it in private. I believe we heard from the heart when the President said the police were stupid. I think the President is stunned that anyone disagrees with him. The arrogrance of the Man is amazing.

    July 24, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  8. troubled

    The rush to judgment by President Obama is a example of racism
    in our country. He will truly defend the Black community no matter
    at what cost. His health care program will be another medicaid program for the African American people. I am a registered Democrat.

    July 24, 2009 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  9. Arnold Ruff

    A good president does not make a comment on anything in our country before all facts have been exposted. He is not god and i am sorry that i voted for him. He is a bully that the press loves and they are not what a good reporter should be covering. The press should be suppling all the facts and be subjective and we can make our own mind. We are now a third world country and on the road to socialism.

    July 24, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  10. JR

    The officer should have walked away and said "have a nice day, sorry for the mix up."

    July 24, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  11. David

    Way to go BO! Stuck your foot in your mouth on that one. Doesn't matter if your friend is a distinguished Harvard man, he is a clown for going on like he is. If anyone should be under fire, it's the neighbor. The cop was doing what they're all trained to do.

    July 24, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  12. Clifton

    So, he blasts the officer for acting "stupidly" in public, and apologizes in private. So typical of Obama. Doesn't want anyone to see that he makes mistakes...

    July 24, 2009 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  13. Zero.

    Nairobi Kenya. East Africa. 1963. Thats where Back Obama came from. Every Arab was under threat, and they new it. When Ke3nya got it's indipendace Thoudsand of Arabs were killed. Obama and his Dad escaped to the East Idies. Prove me different. CNN.

    July 24, 2009 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  14. mike

    You have to take your foot out of your mouth first, uhbama.

    July 24, 2009 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  15. Anonymous

    I think this story was not about racism, but more about the egos of men. I think the President should have said the officer "acted stupidly", not the entire police force. It is so important to think about what you say before you say it. Yes, I do not think that the professor should have been arrested in his own home. He is an older guy and older people when they are upset most times speak from the hip. He probably upset the officer so the officer used his authority to arrest the guy. I really respect the police force, but not every police officer does the right thing. For example, there was an article in the Philadelphia Daily news this week about an officer arresting a woman with his gun to her neck for disorderly conduct. The woman was put in jail overnight and was facing a number of charges. Unbeknownst to the officer, a camera recorded a different story. The woman was basically attacked by the officer because she had gotten into a fender bender with his son who was at fault. His son left the scene and went to his father's job. The kid must have told his father that he was hit and his father left his job and got in the car to search for the other car. When they found car, the officer went up to the woman and grab her neck. The woman tried to leave, but the officer’s son grab her. The police report said that the woman was at fault and tried to attack the officer, but that was not evident on the tape. The officer is now on desk duty. There are always two sides to a story and we must first find out all the facts before passing judgment. I know for sure, I would have been pissed if I was arrested in my own home after I had showed ID.

    July 24, 2009 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  16. Paul

    Get some cajones O.
    You said what needed to be said. The office needs no apology. This cop should be reflecting on his own excessive and unprofessionally dramatic behavior.

    July 24, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  17. Active Duty Democrat

    Good now let this nonsense end...Obama gave his opinion and thats that. The Officer was wrong to tell him it was a local matter. Being president should mean EVERYWHERE in the US is local...

    July 24, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  18. Adam Orlando

    It does not matter that you do not mean too, the point is, infront of your entire nation, you called our public servants stupid, because of racially charged accusations.

    I wont vote for you a second time.

    July 24, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  19. Ed

    I'm surprised Officer Crowley spoke to Obama at all. I would not have done it. This was a local matter and Obama should have kept his mouth shut. Yet another one of Obama's racist friends. Anyone else notice a pattern here? Obama has all these racist friends yet he isn't? Right...........

    July 24, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  20. Get Real

    Ok Obama admitted he should have chosen his words more carefully, and that is friend Gates over-reacted as much as the officer may have.

    So now all of you that were calling for the President to apologize, please begin your criticisms of this. Make sure not to give him any credit for doing what you wanted, call him a liar, call him someone who does not mean what he says because he came out and said he did not speak wisely. Go ahead...YOU KNOW you will.

    July 24, 2009 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  21. Zero.

    Black is not the issue. A muslim Arab ilegally elected is..

    July 24, 2009 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  22. Obama

    now retracking statements.. bout time!

    July 24, 2009 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  23. Mark L.

    "President Obama did not mean to malign the Cambridge Police Department" – ONLY BECAUSE the Cambridge Police Department threatened to place the 44th President of the United States under arrest for siding with Harvard University Professor Gates...LOL...Way Too Funny....

    July 24, 2009 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  24. Mac

    Pres. Obama is just sick!
    Your comment was right and will always be, what's the need to telephone the cop, you're acting like a small boy.

    July 24, 2009 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  25. Jonita

    President Obama should not backtrack from his original statement...Say whay you mean and mean what you say...Sir..

    July 24, 2009 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
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