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. Eric Cartman, is that you?

    Officer Crowley: Respect my "AH-THOH-ROH-TAY!"

    Professor Gates: I'm just a man who's angry about being treated like a criminal in my own house.

    Officer Crowley: But I have "AH-THOH-ROH-TAY!" Therefore, it's not my job to arrive on the scene and calm the situation. No, sir. I can get as angry as I like. So defer to my "AH-THOH-ROH-TAY" or I will arrest you.

    ...Maybe President Obama should be taking instead to Officer Crowley's superiors about giving his badge and gun to Eric Cartman of South Park.

    July 24, 2009 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  2. joe m

    rookie mistake from a man who has been so careful with so much.

    July 24, 2009 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  3. C. Bass

    If the arresting officer was just following normal procedure why did he have to lie in his report and say that the professor was acting disorderly in a public place? Last time I checked a man's home is his private property not a public place.

    July 24, 2009 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  4. phoenix86

    Public insult + private apology = No Character.

    I guess Obama was listening to Rev. Wright for all those 20 some years.

    July 24, 2009 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  5. pnwman11

    First you state the police "acted stupidly" on national TV in prime-time and then two days later you say you didn't mean to malign the CPD. Insert foot in mouth. You should have stayed out of it in the first place.

    July 24, 2009 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  6. Rev. Richard Taylor

    This President is showing his lack of tact and inability to make responsible decisions at a remarkable pace. A person in his position should, at least most of the time,think before he speaks. Those who voted for him should be very troubled by his lack of maturity. It's unfortunate that that our country may not be able to exist through this terrible mistake.

    July 24, 2009 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  7. schmeckel

    Not quite an apology, please try again

    July 24, 2009 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  8. Right

    The fact of the matter is that even if Prof. Gates was legitimately angry and may have shouted this was not a reason for officer Crowley to arrest him, put handcuffs on him and put him in jail for 4 hours. Prof. Gates is elderly and walks with a cane. He is no danger to everybody.
    Get real. Post racial America is a myth.

    July 24, 2009 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  9. nick

    repug thugs will find some smoke in this i can betcha. mr. president way to go! bring the focus back to health care.

    July 24, 2009 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  10. Marc

    Saying I'm sorry is one thing-but the intent and damage is already done Mr. President. What if roles were reversed. Would I'm sorry do if being said to you. Everything in America is about race-sad to say but it is true as that card is pulled out at all times- and ALL color is hit by some sort of discrimination. And the media will feed this until it is made into something more that it is-Cops-White, Black, Latino put themselves in danger everyday to protect. Because racial profiling by a few now the whole group is bad- cops are referred to as "Pigs" as a whole is that not sterotyping- The President is suppose to be held to a higher standard-so I guess saying I'm sorry solves all? But yet if I said the President is stupid I may be veiwed as some type of racist since I'm white and he is black. Not saying that racsism is not in America--it is however across the board- less media coverage when it is reverse discrimination. My thoughts and opinions only here. I don't have to agree with any of it-but when do officers become afraid to do their job because of what may happen to them? I'm thankful we have police could you imagine the country without? Yet I'm told I don't know what racism is about because I've not had to live it on an everyday basis! Alot of people treat people the way they wish to be treated. There are a lot of good people that live here in America- God bless all- and God bless America!

    July 24, 2009 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  11. Joe

    Well said, Mr President. Hope Obama, Gates, and Crowley can all have a beer together soon.

    July 24, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  12. St Louie

    Exactly! TWO people over-reacted but I'm glad that the Pres called the officer and was at least willing to hear his side. One always needs to listen and hear both sides. Now he needs to ask his friend to quit acting like he had nothing to do with escalating this situation. Both parties were at fault in this incident and both parties should own up to their behavior. This was about anger, not racism.

    July 24, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  13. sheena - Canada

    never ceases to amaze me – this is a President who has to deal daily with your ecomomic crises, health care reform, troops in unwanted wars etc etc and he is being berated over an off the cuff remark.

    July 24, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  14. MediaCrush

    The police did "act stupidly". This man lives in a mansion and probably pays a fortune in taxes, if there is one place you should be able to act disorderly it should be in your own home. And if this man taught a racial profiling class he should have been more sensitive to this mans anger. He didnt threaten them with violence or become violent. Its just another case of police abuse with there above-the-law persona and holier than thou attitude. This officer wasnt even answering this mans legitimate questions. This fiasco was a waste of time and taxpayer money.

    July 24, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  15. Shirley In California

    One can only wonder if the police department would be asking ANY of the former presidents for an apology. My guess would be no. As usual, Obama is apolozing. While it is the right thing to do in this situation-he needs to just keep quiet from now on if he can't stand by his comments.

    July 24, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  16. Chad from Iowa

    Obama is a racist. He meant what he said and can't turn it around. His true colors are showing.

    July 24, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  17. Dawn Jenkins

    "Everyone is entitled to their own stupid opinion." Yes, even the president!

    My opinion of the Professor Gates arrest/fiasco????

    Since when does free speech and opinion expressed in a person's own home get you arrested? It is an outrage for an officer of "peace" to employ power & control because he can! It does not matter what color you are, that is just wrong. Both people in this case were obviously offended. That's it. Offended, not wronged until the cuffs were employed! Then the power shifted UNFAIRLY.

    That's my stupid opinion, please don't arrest me for it!

    July 24, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |

    Hooray! The Repugnants finally have an 'issue' to crow about and distract us from the health care debate for a day or two. I can understand why this is so important to the right-wing nut0jobs bc. despite the months of talks and negotiations on health-care they still have not produced a plan of their own. The status quo is good enough for those who do not care about the suffering of others

    July 24, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  19. sheena - Canada

    never ceases to amaze me – this is a President who has to deal daily with your ecomomic crises, health care reform, troops in unwanted wars etc etc and he is being berated over an off the cuff remark.
    God help you all – you need to get your attitudes checked and your priorities amended.

    July 24, 2009 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  20. E from VA

    So, did he apologized without saying "I apologize"? Can't wait for the impromptu racial summit over a couple of beers. I wonder if Gates will use his Harvard ID to get past secret service and enter the white house...

    July 24, 2009 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  21. No one famous

    And we are surprised by this because???????? What was amazing to me is BHO had no problem commenting on the stupid act performed by the Cambridge police when he admitted not knowing all the facts. However, he would NOT comment on arresting officer after hearing how well regarded he is within the community and Cambridge police force. He said that he did not know all the facts.

    BHO – what a hypocrit!

    July 24, 2009 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  22. Jon Smith

    He wasn't wrong. This is a civil liberties issue. Once you've established that the home you're "breaking into" is indeed yours, the police have no business being there. Crowley should have left, pure and simple. Unless all you republicans like the idea of a police state. You want this to be a race issue because you feel its the only way to divide the country. If a white president had taken the cop's side would you say that there's bias. No, because white is right. Good God.

    July 24, 2009 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  23. Angus McDugan

    This was a planned statement by Obmama to divert focus from the problems he is not addressing and his failures in policy. Good work and the media was suckered.

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

    I Can Defend myself Better than expect the Police to Protect me.
    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. They are Donkeys, Duds, Duffers.

    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.

    July 24, 2009 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  25. Barbara CA

    The point for me is whether Professor Gates should have been arrested for disorderly conduct in his own home or on his own property?

    The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in Alegata v. Commonwealth, 353 Mass. 287, 303-304 (1967) quoting from Model Penal Code ยง 250.2 ruled:
    'A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he: (a) engages in fighting or threatening, or in violent or tumultuous behavior; or (b) makes unreasonable noise or offensively coarse utterance, gesture or display, or addresses abusive language to any person present; or (c) creates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose of the actor.

    I do not think that Professor Gates purpose was 'to cause public inconvenience' in his own home.

    July 24, 2009 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
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