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. Nothing 'Stand Up' about Sen. John Ensign (R-NV)

    President Obama already said enough when he said that everyone should have stayed calm and that cooler heads should have prevailed.


    July 24, 2009 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  2. Darryl Newsome

    Wow. Thousans & thousans, of people out of work, with more everyday, and no relief in sight.
    Everyday, hard working people, loosing everything they spent their lives to get. And this mess, gets all of this attention.

    Our president expressed his felling on and issue. Get over it. If we could come together, to help each other, like we can to weigh in on
    what is racism; I wonder what we could accomplish........

    July 24, 2009 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  3. MediaCrush

    I dont think the President should apologize until Bush apologizes for ruining this country and losing a war. Besides the officer is the one that let it get out of hand, there the ones whose motto is courtesy, professionalism, respect, and he's not apologizing.

    July 24, 2009 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  4. Bruce Wynocker

    Afterr reviewing too many stories relating to the Cambridge Police vs Professor Gaters, I still am looking for the journalist's question and how it was phrased. Was the journalist asking Barack Obama, the private citizen and friend of the professor, or was the journalist asking the President of the United States for his opinion.
    As a citizen. Mr Obama has a right to his opinion and he stated it without taking a politically correct approach which the media disdain.
    As President Obama, any response was unnecessary since it was a "local" issue" and not one of National or International consequence.
    Therefore we should be interpreting the remarks to Mr. Obama, the citizen and friend, and that eliminates the news. Let's move on.

    July 24, 2009 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  5. crownsy

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

    no, people who belive that despite all evidance to the contrary due to hatred and intolerance are.

    July 24, 2009 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  6. AP

    It's a dangerous think to pass judgment on others’ experiences when you have not lived in their shoes. If you do not know what it is to be a minority in this country, you cannot possibly know what kind of discrimination those groups experience. To imply that racial profiling only "exists in the minds of many" is arrogant and false.

    And no matter how angry Gates ALLEGDLY was, that IS NOT grounds for arrest!! Geez people!!! Get a grip! This is America not some communist country!!

    July 24, 2009 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  7. Oregon calling

    Well said President Obama! {{golf clap}} I feel the same way.

    Peace 🙂

    July 24, 2009 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  8. ck

    Obama has shown himself, CLEARY, as a racist and one who is willing to opine before knowing all the facts...

    WHAT A LEADER!! ROFL There's your change! ROFL

    July 24, 2009 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  9. Mike in SA

    No...really...I was COMPLIMENTING the police department when I said they acted stupidly!

    July 24, 2009 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  10. carolyn ,oklahoma city, oklahomac

    i would like to see if there is money trail to cnn and other stations.the media has done nothing but lie for a long time.they like to pick on someone.and think the world should to.the news has truned into the jerry springer show.i dont think they know how to do the news anymore.they them self has almost ruin this country.

    July 24, 2009 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  11. brian

    I am not black or have any issue with police. However, if we look at this fairly. Obama's statement is not out of the line. In all cases where no crimes are committed and no charges are filed, we can all agree that blacks and latino are more likely to be questioned or treated as suspected.
    I know I would be pissed if I am continued to be questioned after I have shown proof to be in my own house. Although I don't think the police acted base on racial discrimination, yet I must agree with Obama that to arrest someone at their own house after they have proven their right to be there can be fairly characterized as 'acted stupidly'. My advice to the police is that if the guy isn't running, there is a good chance he has not done anything bad enough to hide.

    I don't think Obama needs to applogize. I do think police can use better judgement..... remember that black football player stopped at the hospital parking lot and missing seeing his mother-in-law one last time ..... You got the badge, authority and common sense. You just need to put them to good use and not let your ego get in the way and learn to ignore when someone challenges your authority. Try taking the high road sometimes, and let it slide for a happy ending.

    July 24, 2009 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  12. Cerena in PSL

    Obama doesn't have to admit that he was wrong, becasue he wasn't! He still stood by his comments, he just apologized because the perception was that he had characterized the entire Cambridge police as being stupid, but what he actually said was the police man's actions were stupid, and they were. Because such a great % of American citizens are high school drop outs simple statements like these are misconstrued and taken out of context. I hope Mr. Gates sues the police department. Now let's get back to the issue of healthcare reform....which quite frankly Obama should have stuck to and push Lynn Sweets question to the side! It's hard for a black man in this country who has himself been racially profiled (and still is re Birther's controversy) not the come to the defense of another black man who was being racially profiled! The longer we sweep the issue of race under the carpet the more incidences like these will arise and remind us about how far we have yet to come!

    July 24, 2009 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  13. Darryl Newsome

    Can't believe I mispelled thousands... twice

    July 24, 2009 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  14. sharper

    This idiot is showing his true color: racist, rushed judgement, inexperience, etc. His advisors didn't expect that their boss would comment such a small local issue thing like this. How a pathetic loser this man is!

    July 24, 2009 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  15. The Judge

    He ought to apoligize profusely, with SOME blacks every thing is racial.
    I never had a slave and I don't owe anybody anything, get over it.

    July 24, 2009 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  16. MediaCrush

    The police, after seeing this mans identification should have just walked away and let Gates sleep off his anger.

    July 24, 2009 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  17. What? BHO...a peacemaker???

    @ MsDp July 24th, 2009 2:54 pm ET

    "Mr. President, you are the man and this is why you are good for this country. .... I call you peace maker as well as leader-because you are not afraid to give another person what that person needs. According to the Good Book, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God". So be it."

    Say what!?!?! Er...that's not being a peacemaker. It's insighting more conflict; particularly around race. It's judging before knowing the facts. As POTUS he is the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the land. How can a person in his position, make that kind of careless comment? There is nothing "Blessed" about Obama's actions. He is NOT a peacemaker. On the contrary, I would argue that he is a wolf in sheeps clothing.

    July 24, 2009 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  18. Wanderer

    I have traveled many countries and even lived aboard, I knew many people non-believers and religious, and as of this date I have not seen anyone had offered the other cheek for the second slap. I am still wondering for what Jesus came to earth.

    July 24, 2009 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  19. RNC = DNC = politics as usual

    He didn't mean to milign them? I guess "acting stupidly" is a compliment in the new bizzarro world called Obama land?

    Actually Obama meant to distract America from the trouble he is having getting the lawmakers to do what he wants.

    July 24, 2009 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  20. Patrick Belvin, Lake Stevens, WA

    Here we go. The systematic destruction of the American president begins and some of it can be credited to his own doing. President Obama is now somewhat apologizing for insinuating that police in Cambridge, Mass are stupid for arresting Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates. I don't understand the backing down of the president in this matter.

    President Obama should defend his statement and not cower to the masses who may disagree with his comment that the police "acted stupidly." in reference to Gates' arrest. Just as the officer who made the arrest stated he will not apologize for his actions, the president should not apologize for making the statement during his Wednesday news conference.

    Dwindling approval ratings largely due to his handling or fumbling of the health care bill seem to have Mr. Obama in somewhat of a tailspin. And maybe his soften touch is more a reflection of politics rather than remorse for a poor choice of words. Better right yourself, Mr. President before you come to a sudden crash. The ground that awaits is very unforgiving.

    July 24, 2009 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  21. Drooling Liberal

    This President has been acting stupidly for a solid 7 months now.

    July 24, 2009 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  22. Cage

    Glad he said an Aftrican American could actually overreact when confronted with a police officer. This really was nothing more than a misunderstanding. I find it interesting that Gates "the professor" had not learned long ago it is far easier just to be polite and cooperate with cops. But that is is really hard I am sure for a belligerent and self-absorded intellectual – go figure. "You don't know who you are messing with", sums it up. If a white Republican said that he could not get back in his driveway from all the liberals harrassing him.

    July 24, 2009 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  23. KEVIN

    True to form -our president has integrity. And demonstrates on a daily basis how our elected officials should behave. Not afraid to speak his (intelligent)mind. Good for you Mr. President.

    July 24, 2009 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  24. Joker1956

    Good name for you! I could never imagine Bush being man enough to make the things he's said right ! This is good for Fox News though, it will give them something to talk about for two whole weeks....aren't you glad Hannity?

    July 24, 2009 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  25. 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 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
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