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. Mike G

    I don't agree with Obama even addressing this situation after giving his opinion however I understand it. People have been wanting a reason to call Obama racist since '06. The media would've filled the minds of the easily led with, get rid of our racist President.
    Wow, the different standards that apply when the President is Black!?

    July 24, 2009 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  2. gl, From Pittsburgh

    It is amazing how white people don’t like to get caught being RACIST. But yet the majority of white americans are still racist due to sweeping SLAVERY under a rug. Slavery has not been rectified, so racism, the aftermath of slavery still runs rampant in this country. I am 50 years old so I can remember an incident when my younger brother and cousin were walking down the street and the police made them lie face down on the sidewalk with their guns drawn. How old were they? 10. What were they doing? Walking home from school. Their crime, being a black man. There are millions of incidents like this all over the us of white police profiling black men. So get real and admit that this is a true thing that happens everyday all over America. I hope that Obama DOES NOT APOLOGIZE for a white cop being racist and repeating racial profiling that happens millions of time. What nerve of the police to ask Obama apologize for their racism. How many black men have been stopped DRIVING WHILE BLACK??? How many cabs refuse to pick up Black Men??? How many jobs refuse to hire black men. I had a government job 3 years ago that refused to hire black men and gave me 2 jobs to do for the salary of 1 when a white man left. Don’t try to pretend this country is not still prejudiced, because it is. Talking about racism, instead of sweeping it under a rug, will help bring this great country up to date, instead of keeping it 400 years old in Colonial Slave mode.

    July 24, 2009 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  3. Will smith

    jack, he already did. will any body tell me unders what circumstances should you be arrested at your own home? The president also, has cave in to the pressure. Oh, may I tell you, lowly police sergeant from Cambridge (never heard off) Ma. Vs Honorary distinguish prof. of Havard & President of USA on one side. I have to say, All hail to white Americans. THis is still the America I known, I will be kidding myself if anything has changed.

    July 24, 2009 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  4. jane

    Pres. Obama's most recent comments do not suffice. He owes this officer an unqualified apology. I forgave the "sweetie" comment in time, but this president needs to acquire a little wisdom. I hope the officer declines any invitation to this White House. (For the record, I voted for Pres. Obama.)

    July 24, 2009 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  5. yuri

    Crowley could become the humdinger cop with a crown on his skullcap. Boy, what an arrogance! He still does not adequately address why he apprehended Gates, who was not blockin' the traffic or disturbin' the peace in the streets. He was shoutin' inside his own house.

    July 24, 2009 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  6. Christopher Toote

    Thanks President Obama for taking the high road and leading by example. There is always a way to find some good in everyone. This incident exposes the underlying monster of racism and synicism that is well alive amongst us. However, finding common ground is always a corageous approach moving forward. I trust that the White House invitation works out where the Police, the Professor, and the President can break common bread together. This can be a great symbolism of nationwide engagement and dialog across social, cultural, and economic divides moving forward.

    July 24, 2009 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  7. troubled

    Who keeps racism alive and thriving? Al sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Rev Wright, professor Gates, and of course Obama.

    July 24, 2009 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  8. That wasn't an apology!

    Since when a President gets involve in local/state matters? What – he doesn't have enough on his plate already?
    If anything this is a case of an African American profiling a White police man.

    July 24, 2009 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  9. lrobb

    Why should any Black Man apologize for what they say when treated unfairly by police .it is a given that Black Men have been treated unfairly by law enforcement and when they make a mistake I do not hear them apologize for their errors (i.e. when they shoot and kill unarmed blacks) Say what you will nothing will change and ther is a Black Man today who will be accosted by a law enforcement for the color of his skin.Thank U

    July 24, 2009 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  10. Bob

    Can anybody doubt for a second that if Gates had been a WHITE professor entering his residence in Cambridge - where many Harvard faculty reside, naturally enough - and produced his ID to police when they came to investigate a possible break-in, that he would have been left alone, no matter how much of a noisy stink he raised over such an obvious mistake? There can be little doubt that race, perhaps subliminally, played a role in Gates's arrest. How else can you really explain it? So in that sense the police acted stupidly, and Obama should not back down from using that phrase to describe the incident. I don't care how much sensitivity training and lack of obvious racial feelings the officer had shown in the past, race is all over this one and his actions SHOULD be condemned.

    I'm a 52 year old white man with several minority friends. I've seen racial profiling firsthand, which has given me a keen understanding of the benefits of being a white male in our society. Race is and will continue to be a huge factor in American life and no one should pretend otherwise. Obama was absolutely correct in pointing out that minorities are still burdened by skin color when it comes to fair treatment in the U.S.

    July 24, 2009 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  11. mike

    It seems Gates and uhbama were both 'racially profiling' the white police officer.

    July 24, 2009 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  12. t

    Can we move on I NEED A job

    July 24, 2009 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  13. Mickey Dean

    i voted for obama, i support obama, and i contributed cash to his cause.

    having said that, the president's remarks were way out of line.

    the only racial profiling going on here was of white cops.

    if you insult and abuse any policeman anywhere under any circumstance while he is doing his job, you WILL be arrested 100% of the time regardless of your ethnicity.

    frankly, it doesn't take a harvard degree to figure that out.

    July 24, 2009 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  14. Carlos

    POLICE UNIONS are Supporting the Gates' arresting officer.

    POLICE UNIONS are Threatening Obama to Apologize, Otherwise the POLICE UNIONS will Strike Work.

    I Wish US TROOPS Could also have UNIONS, So that they Could Strike Bush’s Unjust War In Iraq.

    July 24, 2009 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  15. Josh Gilchrist

    I disagree, I'm proud that President Obama spoke out about that policeman who was probably racist. I've been harassed by police throughout my entire life. My brother got stopped by two police officers over a month ago while walking home from work. The police officers used racial slur and made all types of threats. No, the NAACP or anybody else can do anything about it for this simple fact…the police officers lied about the incident. I'm willing to bet that Cambridge policeman is a racist or has negative stereotypes about African Americans. I will be seriously mad if Obama apologizes. However, I do find it funny how much the media always covers racial incidents that occur with blacks who live in the north. There are countless blacks who get harassed by policeman daily in the rural south and middle America. By Obama taking his stance against the actions of the cambridge police, he sends out message to crooked cops across America.

    July 24, 2009 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  16. Heidi

    Obama did a good job of dealing with this issue. Nobody is perfect and he spoke his mind. I think Pres Obama is a man of character and integrity. He understands the sensitivity of this issue, unlike so many haters on this board. He has an ability to see both sides and respect the opinion of others. Many Americans are so divided when it comes to race and the bottom line is people need to grow up.

    July 24, 2009 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  17. Lisa P

    Wondering if Sgt. Crowley would now like to admit some second thoughts concerning his role in the incident? Followed, perhaps, by a little self-reflection from Professor Gates? President Obama has very kindly and very astutely given them both an opening.

    The way to destroy your enemies is to make them friends, but to do that you must first understand that all of us are human beings.

    July 24, 2009 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  18. Steve J, Michigan

    Zero..Nairobi Kenya. East Africa. 1963. Thats where Back Obama came from. Every Arab was under threat, and they new it. When Ke3nya got it's indipendace Thoudsand of Arabs were killed. Obama and his Dad escaped to the East Idies. Prove me different. CNN.

    Sorry to tell you, no one has to prove it to you or anyone.. Its a dead conspiracy.. Time to find another and move on..


    July 24, 2009 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  19. Gator

    Exactly right, troubled, these are the biggest racists of all, it's how they make a living.

    July 24, 2009 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  20. June

    I am not an American but I continue to be disappointed with President Obama not sticking to his words. He should not have apologised to the Police Officer because the action of the officer was stupid.

    The white officer stated he was never apologising so the President should not have either. He is becoming too mamby pamby.

    President bush would not have apologised.

    July 24, 2009 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  21. Spuds

    Look at the statistics on who commits the most crimes. It would be law of averages and not profiling.

    July 24, 2009 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  22. Unfazed

    The Good News

    The Dow is up, the S&P is up.
    A young man pitched a perfect game and his teammate made the perfect catch.
    Healthcare reform is on the way and it willl be done right.
    Minimum wage has increased.
    Education is being made a priority.

    And Jesus is still Lord!!

    CNN and the rest of the media need to focus on Good News at least one day a week.

    July 24, 2009 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  23. Stu

    Obama should apologize and so should Prof. Gates. Had Gates simply shown his identification and thanked the officers for checking on his home, instead of going off on them, this situation would never have happened.

    Obama's comments just show he hasn't separated himself from "community organizing," and the teachings of his "former" church. He automatically assumed the officers were wrong and racially biased.

    July 24, 2009 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  24. Bob

    Irma says that President Obama "set a bad example" for children when calling the arresting officer "stupid." I hope she made a similar statement when President Bush lied the country into a war in Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives as well as the deaths of over 4,000 Americans, and led to the draining of billions and billions of dollars from our treasury, for absolutely nothing. That might be a little bit more important than calling out Obama's unfortunate choice of words during a heated moment.

    July 24, 2009 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  25. Southernstyle

    I never owned a slave and I don't owe anybody for something that happened 150 years ago.

    July 24, 2009 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
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