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. Lee

    Actually, I think the SGT did ACT stupidly or why would they drop the charges if the professor did something wrong? Also, the President did not call all police officers stupid, only the critics who try to twist his words call them stupid and now they have their ego hurt. I don't ever recall these police unions calling for all police officers around the nation to apologize to the public when they are found guilty of violating someone's rights or even laws. These morons need to take a look in the mirror before they launch an attack on the President who by they way supported them with more funding since he as taken office.
    Ask someone who has been stopped by the police for no reason if they feel the entire police force should apologize. Did anyone apologize to Mr. Gates for trespassing in his home?

    July 24, 2009 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  2. jim

    obama is a racist himself and destroying this country from the inside

    July 24, 2009 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  3. The Judge

    Looks like obama listened to rev jeremiah all those years after all.Racist, racist, racist, racist, racist.

    July 24, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  4. Barb Lamberty

    I am a Canadian (White) who listens to CNN and find your covering of world news informative. However, I am telling you if you don't get Rick
    Sanchez off the air, you are well on the way to creating a great loss of viewership but you are going to have him creating the equivalent of a
    2nd Civil War as he tries to deliberately provoke confrontations not
    only between black and white, but between world contries which does nothing to promote a favorable view of the USA

    July 24, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  5. beverly

    Firstly all people in the world regardless of their race, feel many times they are being treated unfairly.

    The professor should have only complained that he was being treated unfairly by being arrested in his own home after showing a ID.

    What can a white person call it if this happened to them...they can not call it discrimination, but unfair treatment...lets move ahead from this and just talk of the fair or unfairness of treatment and not bring other things that are secondary into it.

    The professor should have been grateful to the police and co-operated with them in every way... after all they risk their lives by entering his home to maybe face a bullet. He should give full co-operation as we all should..

    Second, and most important, everyone must know that we are never going to get away from discrimination, and we all are guilty of it...and it is not only because of color of skin, we discriminate all the time against our fellow men and women because they are tall, short, fat, too skinny, rich, poor etc and folks discriminate against each other in their own race all the time in this way.

    Last of all, everyone over reacted to what the President said on the first day...he did say he did not have all the details, but it seemed stupid that a man should be arrested in his own home after showing a ID...which i think we all agree to. Not having all the facts...means that the Professor could have been loud and insulting to the officers hence was arrested...

    I admire the President for taking the time to talk to the people, most in the past are very far removed from all of us...so i really admire him for it.


    we want a wife or husband that is beauful,among our our race,
    WI want to know what do white people call it when they feel they are being treated unfairly? We can not call it discrimination...if it is being

    July 24, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  6. Unseen things-

    How often does this happen? Yet why is the President concerned? Because it was a friend- What is this would have been reversed-Would you have heard anything? Very Slim chance! I can't change the past-but I also refuse to live in it! I was not around when slavery was going on nor were most Americans today-yet we wish to continue to say "well until you've been in my shoes you want know" well guess what folks I will never know but I do treat people as I wish to be treated! WE can ALL feel sorry for ourselves if we choose to-Everyone in America has just as much a chance as anyone else- After all history was made was it not when BO was named President yet we still want to live in the past! Move on folks- Look upward and not side to side-Mr President- How is things going with Unemployment? What about this health plan? Mr President what all this Stimulus $$$$ that was suppose to kick start the economy- by the way your great, great, great grand children will be paying for this......I guess that will give our future generations something to blame on our past generations to uh?

    July 24, 2009 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  7. tpbco

    Guess the obama really was listening to the rev. wright all those years....

    How do you like your prez now America...

    And he is just getting started.

    July 24, 2009 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  8. david

    HE'S RACIST!!! Always has been, just look at his mentors and his friends...

    July 24, 2009 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  9. Byrd

    1.there was a news conference where the president answered as best as he could and his opinion and I am sorry to say he was write on his conclusion...wasnt he a law proffesor in college????cant recall

    2. some of you really need to shut up....the only reason you are responding is to tell your feelings about how you feel about obama in the first place....everything he says and does will be negative and I know the real reason why you do it...nuff said

    July 24, 2009 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  10. Aztec

    this whole story is a bunch of bull. the guy gave his own opinion and all he gets is a bunch of people critizing him for it? come one grow up just because he is the president dont mean that he has to give up the right to give an opinion of one situation. personally id be POed a both sides for this drama that is making the news but id probably get critizied for giving an opinion too

    July 24, 2009 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  11. Tom

    To Astonished – "We crucify a policeman for doing what any policeman would do in the same situation"?

    So, any policeman can arrest you on your OWN FRONT PORCH, because you've raised your voice at him? After he's questioned whether you have a right to be in YOUR OWN HOME? And you've shown him proper identification?

    Whatever happened to Free Speech?

    White, Black, Brown, or Green... no cop "should ask someone to step outside" just for th sole purpose of being able to arrest him for "public disturbance".

    It's not like Prof. Gates was a physical threat, or threatening the cop's life or safety.

    I don't need any more facts than a 55 yr old man, who needs a cane, was arrested on his own front porch, for basically yelling at a police officer for being ridiculous.

    The arrest was STUPID... and the police chief knew that... that's why the charges were immediately dropped.

    Police are supposed to defuse and protect... i.e. walk away. Especially after you've just questioned a man's right to be in his own home... a distinguished professor of Harvard University.

    And I'm a middle-aged white guy.

    July 24, 2009 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  12. CNN=Moveon.org

    @history repeats

    You have control of both houses of Congress by big majorities. I don't think it is the Republicans slowing things down. The friction is coming from within your own party. I know it is easy to blame others, but read and learn about something before you loos stupid yourself.

    July 24, 2009 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  13. Katy

    President Obama, the man said directly "I did not vote for him" and acted arrogant; you apolgized to him. I am dispointed. The Police Union demanded an apology from you and you gave in. What about us who support you and want health care reform and economic & living standard improvement => you let us down.

    However I still respect and support you because you are US President. I have to standby you until next election

    July 24, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  14. JED

    Can anyone say DAMAGE CONTROL? He is not remorseful the least bit. His approval rating is dwindling and members of his own party are putting the brakes on his agenda.

    He thumbed his nose at officers not only in Cambridge but from coast to coast. He only smells the votes of law enforcment officers in 2012 fleeting.

    July 24, 2009 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  15. Disappointed Deb

    President Obama has just given liscence for all African-Americans to freely browbeat and defy reasonable Police in the course of their duties. This will make the job of protecting and policing an already troubled and difficult community next to impossible.
    What this President has done is reprehensible. Our law enforcement officers do a dangerous and thankless job under extreme condtions day in and day out. Mr. Obama just through them under the bus! Any police officer in his right mind will now have second thoughts about risking his life, reputation and job trying to protect an ungrateful, disrespectful community. Many neighborhoods will simply go on the "pay no mind" list, and I don't blame the police one bit. The "community" and their "president" will reap what they sow.

    July 24, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  16. Charles

    Can we get this rest from now on? The whole thing is stupid enough. Do you think the city and DA has case against the professor? Did the professor show threat to the police officer? The whole thing is a mistake and they all knew that. Unfortunately we had two adult men with strong personality and ego just wouldn't back down. A professor came back home from China (12 hours jet lag and 20+ hours flight) and found out the door was jammed. When a police officer showed up and asked him to step outside of his own house (which is a correct procedure), do you expect a person would have cool temper after these? The key is the charge and arrest. This poor guy got arrested at HIS OWN HOME for "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior in a public place. This is just a plain stupid event.

    July 24, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  17. James

    I also thought the President should have said something like "I'd rather not comment because I don't have all the facts." But he didn't and that's the way it is. He has now come back and talked to the officer and said publicly that he could have chosen his words better and that he probably did not help the situation with his comments. This President has character and he demonstrates it with the intelligent way he speaks and by admitting he probably could have handle situations better. That's a refreshing change from what we have been through and That's why Obama's popularity continues to be so high. And regardless of what the conservative talk show hosts are trying to get us to believe, in the past 4 months I have regained almost half of what I lost in my 401K so I know the economy is getting stronger. You were right Mr. President. Keep up the good work.

    July 24, 2009 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  18. Annette

    Okay, folks, the President is a stand up. So you all still hating and name calling grow up and have a intelligent conversation that leads to constructive debate. All the trash talking solves nothing.

    July 24, 2009 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  19. Leah

    I don't think that the president is out of line, I do however think that he should use a better word instead of acting like a straight shooter.

    There were many situations where white policemen mishandling black people because he or she is black.

    For example recent situation where white policemen ended up with 5 days suspension because he mishandling black paramedic, the cops was meant and unprofessional stopped the paramedic while he had patience on board the ambulance and the paramedic has a case to sue those cops.

    Or the case where the white cops, stopped the NFL player as he was
    trying to be in the hospital to say good-bye to his mother in law who is dying. Because of that unreasonable white policeman, he didn't have a chance to say goodbye.

    Or the white cops who shot an unarms blackman right on the trains platform.

    There are so many situations and example as far as the White Policemen concerns, some white policemen wade into the situation with an attitudes that "if the person is black, then they must be bad or committed the crime"
    We can talk until the cow come home, but at the end of the day, races is alive and well in USA.

    President Obama has no need to apologize. As a human being, everyone has the right to express how he feels especially when you see your friend being mishandling
    But he should carefully treating the water in the future and use this as a learning curve.

    July 24, 2009 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  20. catmom

    Oh my goodness, The media is playing this for all it's worth. They are only adding fuel to the fire.Rush Limbaugh is fanning the fuel. You have people on the right blowing this whole thing out of proportion whining and screaming about how our President is a racist and bigot. Please. Enough already. The President was asked a question, he responded and because some of white America didn't like his response they want to go on and on ad nauseum.

    It seems that some people need to get a grip. We have a BLACK President. He comes with his BLACK experience. He WILL NOT change his blackness just to suit a few people who can't seem to handle his blackness.

    July 24, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  21. kincas

    This is just a joke - now you have to proof to a police officer that you live in your own house? It has to be a joke and it needs to STOP by any mean necessary...

    July 24, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  22. GP

    I am a person of colour who lives in a wealthy area with not too many visible miniorites and I can tell you this happens and its not fun at all. I was moving my car out of my driveway to park it on the side of my house at 8:30am and a police officer driving up a hill adjacent to my house saw me turned around and pulled me over essentially right in front of my house. Luckily my mother heard the siren and came outside and the cop decided just to check my id and let me go. As he was leaving I asked him why I got pulled over and he said 'we had a call about someone matching your description in this area'. I am a 6'2, 300 pound brown guy and thats what the guy told me. I know if this happens to me again I will react angirly to the cop, so we have to give this guy the benefit of the doubt because he may have experienced this many times before.

    July 24, 2009 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  23. JK Ashburn, VA

    Of course he didn't mean it. But as a former community organizer, it's in his DNA and he can't help himself. It's a natural instinct to blame the cops.

    July 24, 2009 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  24. Rita

    When Officer Crowley saw the ID realized the man was in his own home, he should have apologized and dropped the matter.
    I am a white 60 yr old woman and that is what I would expect if the police came to investigate me trying to get into my home.

    July 24, 2009 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |

    President Obama should take back his words and apologize to the officer and the nation for tarnishing the officer's reputation and for fueling dislike of police by the public in general and minorities in particular.
    I read the police report, and the police officer handled the situation very professionally. A citizen called in a possible B+E in progress. When the officer arrived, he found only one person, and it was reported that two people were entering the house, so when this single individual wouldn't say who he was initially, the cop had every reason to be cautious. Then, without provocation, Gates started accusing the officer of being racist. Even one of the officers who responded later, who was black, said that he "supported the arrest 100%"
    The President didn't apologize, and then went as far as to say that this situation could be a teaching experience about not flinging around premature accusations. Mr. President, YOU are the one making premature accusations! You called the actions stupid, when you admitted you didn't know the facts!!

    July 24, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
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