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. Squealy

    Obama's apology came after re-thinking what he said. Rather than show weakness, it shows strength. It shows he can look at himself and re-evalute an idea – which is something you NEVER got out of the previous prez. Ever. Not once. That is a sign of true intelligence and true leadership. This "my leader is or has to be infallible" crap is unrealistic, and when it is insited upon, you don't get an infallible leader – you just get one who won't cop to making any mistakes. And you can't move forward unless things are copped to.

    July 24, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  2. Anonymous

    I would have been stunned if all the police officers had not backed sgt Crowley. This police sub culture, or gang always sticks together and lie to cover each other. There is no race color or creed, cops protect other cops right or wrong

    July 24, 2009 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  3. Irma

    One more thing...
    President Obama, I do not let my children use the word or any form of the "stupid" when describing other people. You have set a poor example for all American children.

    July 24, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  4. Louse

    Clearly the old adage. You can't write about or discuss a topic that you know nothing about. Obama was wrong. He stated he did not know all the facts. Too bad this comment overrode all the health care issues.

    July 24, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  5. B in Pittsburgh

    This whole uproar over what the president said is pathetic. I'm disgusted with how much press this is getting. We have more important issues to be focusing on right now like the economy and health care.

    Does anyone actually stop to think how rediculous we as a country look when THIS is the headline right now?

    July 24, 2009 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  6. spinbowla@hotmail.com

    Ok well, the Mayor and the President commented before knowing all the facts. So I am not going to comment until I get all the facts. May I also suggest that the Commissioner of Police, the Police Union and EVERYONE else not comment until we get all the facts. Or is it only the Black folks who should wait for the facts.......opps oh shucks there I go playing the race card again.....darn.

    July 24, 2009 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  7. Time is Coming

    Pride and Egos is all this comes down to! A time is coming when WE will ALL bow a Knee NO MATTER WHAT SKIN COLOR you are!!! That is a promise because of the CROSS!

    July 24, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  8. Mike

    This was not an issue for the President to weigh in on.

    July 24, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  9. tim b

    The president said enough that this situation should quietly go away and more important issues brought to the forefront. As the President said the officer and Mr. Gates are fine upstanding people that found themselves in a situation that neither handled well. Each in his turn "acted stupidly." There is no reason to apologize and if an entire police force is unable to continue to do there jobs because of an opinion that they may not like from me you or the President...it's time to replace that department. You have to have a fairly large pair(sexism aside) to be a police officer but apparently thicker skin is unnecessary.

    July 24, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  10. Maximus

    The key point is both the police officer and the professor acted stupidly and they both are stupid; and I shall noyt apologize for saying that. The officer was abusing his authority and the professor, his popularty and fame. Power, fame, and wealth are three factors that make people ARROGANT and act STUPIDLY. Whenever president Bush said his trashes, nobody would dare ask him to apologize and he wouldn't do it any way. Why Obama? I've noticed that since Obama became president, every Joe the plumber, every shoeshiner, every Palin, every hill billie, in fact every nobody wants to be somebody. I wonder why? Snap out of your dreams, MORONS.

    July 24, 2009 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  11. beevee

    All these new developments in the arrest of Prof. Gates appears like the officer may have been encouraged to engage in the war of words with the President of US by the republicans. The officer was wrong to arrest Dr. Gates after being shown his (Dr. Gates's) ID. As some one has commented some cops don't like to be questioned by oridinary citizens. It is just a tremendous waste of time for the President to extend this any further than he has already have. The president does not have to apologize to any one in this matter.

    July 24, 2009 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  12. Ann

    I think the President showed his leadership in stepping forth in this matter which is getting waaaaaay out of hand, to say his words were not the choicest albeit accurately describe the actions of the officer. It seems incredibly stupid to arrest someone who has not broken the law, no matter how obnoxious or irritating they may be. It is very ominous to think that you can be arrested because you disagreee with an officer or you are vocal about your disagreement. It is distressing to think that just because someone teaches a class on racial profiling, they cannot possibly be guilty of perpetrating racial profiling. We see attorneys who break the law, we see doctors who abuse drugs, prescription and illegal drugs and who also distribute and sell drugs illegally. We also know that prosecutors (Elliott Spitzer) was the prostitution rings worse nightmare and yet he was one of their biggest clients. . .having expertise in a certain area does not make you immune to its vices. .

    July 24, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  13. Kenny

    All these Repubs whining about Obama's comments should also ask President Bush to apologize for taking us to war with Iraq ...a war we lost thousands for reasons that turned out not to be true.

    July 24, 2009 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  14. Tyrone

    This is not hard to understand. There was a call about a burglary. The officer arrives and there is a man snooping around.

    What was the officer SUPPOSED to do???????????

    He asks for Gates ID and Gates gives him lip.

    You give a law enforement LIP – PREPARED TO BE HAULED TO JAIL!!!

    As the economy collapses BO is worried about a crime that never was.


    Change RIGHT!

    July 24, 2009 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  15. johnnie

    NOW can we get on with the Health Care Reform, this is just a (distraction)and it is just for (NETWORK RATINGS) and by the way tell Lou Dobbs,the we want to see his (BIRTH CERTIFICATE) ,now that would be some (NEWS)

    July 24, 2009 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  16. Julia in Eugene

    Sharper wrote: "This idiot is showing his true color: racist, rushed judgement, inexperience, etc. How a pathetic loser this man is!"

    I'm sorry – are you talking about yourself here? Until YOU are elected President of the United States and thus feel the weight of the world on your shoulders when some idiot reporter asks a racial question during a press conference about a completely different topic... I'd use that word "idiot" carefully.

    President Obama IS our President. Respect the office, if not the man himself.

    July 24, 2009 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  17. Audrey Moses

    I remember the days when you spoke badly of Bush you were told you were not American. Wow, the tide is changing and fast. I guess Obama is everyone's punching bag. The treatment of President Obama is an outrage. I am a proud American who is sickened by what is going on. Obama IS allowed to say what he thinks even though it isn't always popular. These recent attacks are coming so quickly and easily because Obama IS black. Most likely the same can be said of Gates. Bush was a rich white guy who sold out this country and was responsible for thousands of solider's deaths. Too bad Obama isn't white or Gates for that matter.

    July 24, 2009 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  18. Yhoo

    This is all Bush's fault............ LOL.......

    July 24, 2009 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  19. Erika

    There was no need for Pres. Obama to apologize. The facts are clear and simple, it was proven that Gates lived in his home and was not breaking any laws. Therefore, he was falsely arrested. IF NO LAW WAS BROKEN< NO ARREST SHOULD BE MADE!!!!!! I find it comical that people are calling the Pres. a racist, if the roles were reversed and the officer was black the officer would be on administrative leave and facing investigation. Yet, not in GOOD OLE AMERICA, a black man is falsley arrested and he and the pres. are the racist ones. WOW WOW WOW!!!!!! BTW if it had been a black officer and a white man in his ow home you can bet that some of you gun loving republicans would have shot first asked questions later and then gotten a medal.

    July 24, 2009 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  20. Mike G

    Lets be glad Crowley didn't shoot Gates. Because we all know(at least some of us)how that would've turned out. Black community would have lost another scholar and Crowley would have be assigned to a desk job.

    July 24, 2009 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  21. Jessica Steele

    There is too much hate in our country today. Every person in America has a reason to be a victim of hate such as race,religion,political view, sexual preference, amount of income, and job details. Even physical appearances spur hate such as:if they're too skinny or obiest, if they have a physical handicap or speech impediment,or if they dress differently. We all need to get past any bias out past has taught us. We need to work together to fix our economy, halp starving families in our own country, and help our youths who live in abusive unsuitable households. Hate brings about fear which inturn causes more hate. United our children can have a much brighter future. As for the arrest, i would think a Harvard professor would have set a better example of grace in the circumstance. Instead of yelling prejudicial accusations he should have been inquiring what the officer needed and tried to help a man who puts his life on the line serving his community. His reaction showed children to be fearful and that will only create more hate. We need to find ways to unite our children, not show them to be fearful of eachother. If five people of a certain discription are bad that doesnt mean all the people of that specific discription are. Those five people who did something wrong just happened to fit that discription. That is what we need to teach our children. They should be knowledgeable about the prejudices that exist however we should never show them its acceptable. We need to break this cycle of hate and accept eachother. The children of this country only know hate from what they're taught. Personally i have to thank God for the disney channel because if if the children only followed their bias parents examples the world wouldnt get any better. I think that Harvard professor needs to watch the disney channel to learn how to let the hate go and accept his fellow man. Just Because Michael Jackson has passed doesn't mean his teachings about unity shouldn't live on. I believe the professor owes the police officer a public apology for his unfounded accusations toward a man who was just doing his job.

    July 24, 2009 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  22. Once You Vote Black

    What a great guy. That was nice of him to call the cop and let cool heads prevail. At least he can admit when he is wrong.

    July 24, 2009 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  23. it's our turn

    The officer had the duty to be professional not go on a power play trip.

    July 24, 2009 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  24. Once You Vote Black

    Gates' mouth wrote a check his ass could not cash. You gonna talk about the mans momma and then follow him out of the house and talk so loud that a crowd gathers. Your ass is going down. Roxy, if you were an officer and you went to a house that had been robbed months earlyer and the home owner talked about your momma you woudl find a reason to bring him in. Gates calls it his home the officer calls it his beat.

    July 24, 2009 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  25. cevans, tx

    How in the world can some of you idiotS call this man (Mr. President) a "Racist"? His mother was a "WHITE WOMAN"...Now speaking of "STUPID"...By the way, he said what he did was stupid (and it was) not he was stupid...Why didn't the officer give the gentleman the information he asked for (superior officer's name & badge no.) instead of ignoring him and walking away? The officer is the one who needs to apologize.
    Oh, I forgot, WHITE is right... NOT!!!

    July 24, 2009 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
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