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. Tommy

    The President called the actions of the officer as it was: stupid. Any
    white person, myself included, would have been infuriated, the only
    difference being, the cops would have "understood" my reaction, and
    offered an immediate apology, and hoped he had a job the next day.
    I'm also glad I at least taken a moment to know what my neighbors look
    like. That neighbor who had "mistaken" him for a burglar should also feel pretty stupid, go "introduce" themselves, and apologize.

    July 24, 2009 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  2. cool rock

    No apology to that officer is needed or Cambridge police nor all police . They just need to do their jobs and move on. Most police are in the wrong and do need to apoligiaze for harassing citizens. That Crowley guy should have left once the id was shown and said " Have a good day" He needs to be investigated !

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

    Now just who you think have won this, better yet we the citizens are the losers, because he has affirmed that it's okay for the President and his Attorney General to order his police to enter Americans homes for search and seizure and arrest without reason, without warrant. (Forget the Constitution it's just a piece of paper)

    The precedent is now set for Obama/AG/Police now can do what they will with total disregard to rights of ordinary citizen, we who are not famous, not rich won't be covered by the news when they come for anything they don't think is good for the State.
    Obama is the head of this Police State, and we are fighting to give him more power, have we all lost our minds?

    July 24, 2009 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  4. stevegee

    Of course Obama's apologizing - his approval rating is dropping like a rock!

    July 24, 2009 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  5. frank, pennsylvania

    The police officer actually acted stupidly by arresting somebody he suspected to be burgling his own home for disorderly conduct. He is actually more interested in his personal ego than in the welfare of an elderly man who was angered by an erroneous suspicion!! An intelligent and truly caring officer, should have defused the whole dram immediately he saw the identity of his suspect.

    He should actually be arrested for disorderly conduct, for his actions when he saw the Identity of his suspect, showed complete lack of focus and intelligence. It does not matter whether the suspect is a black, white or red man, the most important point here is that a man was being suspected for burgling his own house, his yelling could have made an intelligent officer to suspect that something must be wrong with the whole situation.

    July 24, 2009 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  6. Tom St. Paul

    It is clear to thinking people that this is not about race, it is about class and egos. Human nature, pure and simple: professor demands respect, cop does too, and neither will budge until it comes to a head. Pres. Obama? He should've stayed out of it.

    July 24, 2009 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  7. DigDug

    Good thing the arresting officer isn't gay, or BO would have said he acted stupidly and is likely to promote incest, you know, like gays in the military.

    July 24, 2009 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  8. adam

    I thought the right believed in private property rights... I guess not.

    July 24, 2009 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  9. Dave in Ohio

    Obama is self destructing before our eyes

    July 24, 2009 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  10. AJ

    Too little, too late. Obama was attempting to appease black voters and has alienated many others. Once again Obama plays the race card. Just another example of bad judgment. Hopefully we will only have to suffer this man for one term and then we Democrats can get about the business of electing a serious candidate for serious problems.

    July 24, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  11. DigDug

    Darryl, you also misspelled "misspelled."

    July 24, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  12. Roger

    Obama Called Gates' arresting officer and said he believed his choice of words. Indirectly Obama apologized.

    Did Bush ever apologize to the Families of those 4300 US Troops killed in the Unjustified War in Iraq?

    Did Cheney every apologize to those 25000 US Troops injured in Iraq?

    Obama is a Humble Man. Obama is a Great President.

    July 24, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  13. George

    A black cop was mistaken for a robber and shot dead in NY. Now a black Professor gets arrested inside his home for yelling at police. What other evidence or racism do we need in America? Obama needs to stand up for what is right .

    July 24, 2009 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  14. johnnie

    We Americans ,not the media support the President in his (TRUE) but so realistic remarks, the (CHARGES) were dropped against (GATES) which shows ,the POLICE officer was wrong , if that would have been a (WHITE MAN) we would not be talking about this (STORY) at all, just a smoke- screen , to divert from HEALTH CARE REFORM. And if the (GOP) thinks they have traction, on this (STORY) and the (Media ) as well, it will be yesterdays(NEWS). There is no (DENIAL) minorities have been (PROFILE) unjustly, lets get (REAL).President Obama was right, bottom (:LINE)

    July 24, 2009 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  15. Don't blame me - I voted for McCain

    So the president sticks his foot right in his own mouth. How many other times has he misspoke with only partial facts at best. The on-the-job training of this President will take most likely all 4 years of his only term. How sad!

    July 24, 2009 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  16. Truth

    Police racism is quite common in every city. This is a good chance to face it.

    July 24, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  17. RTB

    The pip squeak Professor was way out of line, he should be thanking the police officers for doing their job.
    Than he should be fired. What kind of role model is he to be in a teaching position?
    Insulting the officer"s mother when the police were protecting the runt's property?

    July 24, 2009 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  18. Chris W

    You're right, President Obama, BOTH persons in this event probably overreacted – even your "respected" friend Gates. For me, all this has shown is what a jerk Gates is... He was aggressive, insulting ("I'll talk to your mama"), threatening ("you don't know who you're dealing with") and yes, racist (profiled the white police officer as racist from the first instant he saw him) to an officer who was just trying to do his job. Regardless of whether or not he should have been arrested, should someone like Gates still be referred to as a "respected" professor? Sounds like to me he has had a chip on his shoulder for a long time and is now trying to capitalize on this for a little bit of fame and attention.

    July 24, 2009 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  19. Power to who? It's definitely NOT the PEOPLE.

    @ MediaCrush July 24th, 2009 3:21 pm ET

    "The police did "act stupidly". ...... This officer wasnt even answering this mans legitimate questions. This fiasco was a waste of time and taxpayer money. POWER TO THE PEOPLE."

    It seems clear you are an Obama supporter and likely very liberal. You realize that Obama and his Democrat lead senate and house are creating bills that LIMIT ...."Power to the People". If you truly want "Power to the People", then you should probably obtain a better understanding of the polices of Obama instead of taking him at face value and becaue he has a (D) after his name. Take time to read the proposed Healthcare and Cap and Trade bills. Forget about black, white, asian, hispanic, etc.....there will be NO "Power to the People". The new slogan coming from the halls of Washington will be "POWER TO THE GOVERNMENT".

    July 24, 2009 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  20. Zero.

    A (So called) Law Proffessor. (I don't believe it). When your Elected CIC of the USA. Even if your Black. All kinds of crap come out of the Woodwork about your experience. So an "eleged" Law Professor can tell another "Law Officer". When and when not to use your teachings..

    July 24, 2009 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  21. brian

    You guy should try to do what Obama is doing. It's harder than you think to appologize when you still stand by your own opinion. Many do not believe in racial issues in this country, but they do exist. There is a real stigma against blacks. We can't just say to move on and ask the oppressed to shut up, grow up or move on. I just hope those who are in power can use better judgement and take the high road. Learn from our presiden; he appologized for causing current debate. That shoudl be the end of it. He is still entitled to his opinion which many of us share – police acted stupidly in this case.

    July 24, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  22. Tom

    1. Obama did NOT apologize in this statement.

    2. Crowley violated Prof. Gates' first amenment rights by arresting him for expressing his extreme displeasure at the way he felt he was being treated in HIS OWN HOME.

    3. The charges were immediately dropped, which shows that the Police Chief acknowledges that Sgt Crowley "acted stupidly" in arresting a 55 man, who uses a cane, even if he was yelling at the cops on his front porch.

    4. Unless Prof. Gates' words are "fighting" words or intended to cause riot, anything Prof Gates said was protected under the first amendment.

    5. This is a first amendment issue, not a race issue.

    6. It's sad that the press will only focus on what they see as "Obama apologizing", which he did not, and not as the "teachable moment" that Obama addressed further in his remarks to the press corps.

    July 24, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  23. Freedom_has_left

    I just don't get it! Why isn't there a conversation about the fact that the Federal and local Government has just been handed a powerful tool to subvert the Constitution and violate the privacy and security of the American home?
    I know we want to punish Obama, but instead we are giving him more power in our bedrooms.

    July 24, 2009 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  24. Irma

    I wish Black Americans would try to understand the "profiling" that White Americans experience. Disagreements or discussions with a Black person are immediately thought to be racist. White people spend their lives tiptoeing around people of color because with one racist accusation the White person's life and reputation are ruined. Many people, including our President, jump to the conclusion that every White person acts with racial prejudice. Please throw your race cards in the trash. It's time to look beyond race. We are all Americans.

    July 24, 2009 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  25. Treec Girl

    My concern is that the this is not a local issue, it's a national issue. You can not speak your mind with any officer.. What happened to the freedom of speech. 🙂

    July 24, 2009 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
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