Editor’s note: This article incorrectly reported the location of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., at the time of his July 16 arrest. Mr. Gates was arrested outside his Cambridge home.
President Obama infrequently wades into issues of race, but his unscripted foray into a racially charged debate about the arrest of a prominent Harvard professor kicked up a controversy Thursday, drawing the ire of police unions and distracting from the White House’s health care message.
The white Cambridge, Mass., police sergeant derided by Mr. Obama for acting “stupidly” said the president was way “off base” and suggested Mr. Obama was merely sticking up for his friend, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black.
“I support the president of the United States 110 percent,” Sgt. James Crowley told WBZ Radio. “I think he’s way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts.”
The White House has since backpedaled, with aides insisting the president was not calling the officer stupid, and with Mr. Obama telling ABC News that Sgt. Crowley, an expert in training police how to avoid racial profiling, was an “outstanding” officer.
• State police unions ask Obama for apology
But the president insisted that his remarks on the arrest of Mr. Gates, made at the end of his Wednesday night news conference on health care, amounted to nothing more than straightforward commentary.
“You probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane in his own home,” the nation’s first black president said in an interview with ABC. “Everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed.”
Mr. Gates was arrested outside his Cambridge home on July 16 by police responding to a report that two black men were trying to break into the house. Mr. Gates said the door was stuck and his driver, also black, had shoved open the door with his shoulder. The professor was already inside when the police arrived.
Words were exchanged and the professor was arrested but the charges were later dropped. At his press conference, Mr. Obama said he did not have the facts of the case but he thought the police had “acted stupidly” by arresting Mr. Gates after he had identified himself.
The subsequent back-and-forth has generated the same kind of cable chatter Mr. Obama often derides as a distraction from more important issues, raising questions about why a president who often avoids commenting on sensitive racial issues chose to speak so bluntly.
Police organizations - including one that backed Mr. Obama’s election and one that didn’t - have complained.
Mr. Obama attended Harvard Law School.
Republicans also jumped on the dust-up, asking if Rep. Michael E. Capuano, the Massachusetts Democrat who represents Cambridge, agrees with Mr. Obama’s comment. The National Republican Congressional Committee said Mr. Obama had offered a “questionable rush to judgment.”
Comedian and actor Bill Cosby, a prominent black social critic, said he is worried about the direction the conversation is headed and warned that people “who don’t know” should probably take a step back and refrain from commenting. Asked by a Boston Fox affiliate if that was directed at Mr. Obama, Mr. Cosby responded: “Whatever the president said, I have to take into consideration that he lived in Cambridge for some time so he may know more than he’s saying about situations of that sort.”
Cambridge police are asking a panel to review the matter.
Mr. Gates, 58, is a renowned scholar and director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He said in an interview with TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine, that he was the victim of racial profiling.
“It’s clear that [the arresting officer] had a narrative in his head: A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me,” he said. “He demanded that I step out on the porch, and I don’t think he would have done that if I was a white person.”
Mr. Gates added: “It’s not about me - it’s that anybody black can be treated this way, just arbitrarily arrested out of spite. And the man who arrested me did it out of spite, because he knew I was going to file a report because of his behavior,” he said.
Sgt. Crowley has insisted “I’ve done nothing wrong” - when asked about the charges of racism he said, “It almost doesn’t even warrant a comment it’s so ridiculous.”
Sgt. Crowley said there was a “lot of yelling” when he encountered Mr. Gates at his home near the Harvard University campus.
“Mr. Gates was given plenty of opportunity to stop what he was doing. He acted very irrational,” the officer told the radio station. “He controlled the outcome of that event. … There was references to my mother, something you wouldn’t expect from anybody that should be grateful that you’re there investigating a report of a crime in progress, let alone a Harvard University professor.”
Mr. Gates has asked for an apology, saying he’d been treated unfairly by the white police officer.
Mr. Obama said Wednesday, “I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played” in the arrest.
But he said it was a “fact” that there is a long history of blacks and Latinos being targeted for racial profiling in America, adding “the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”
Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona last year, said he has told the White House he was disappointed by the remarks and offered his support to Sgt. Crowley.
“Police officers, like all Americans, rely on President Obama’s leadership to guide us through an extraordinarily difficult period of change in a variety of areas: To be successful in this effort, he will need the help and support of all of us,” he said.
“Statements of this nature, made without the facts, do little to narrow the void of distrust that too often separates the community from the men and women who work to keep it safe.”
In his ABC interview, Mr. Obama noted the 42-year-old sergeant’s commendable record.
According to the Associated Press, Sgt. Crowley has taught a class on racial profiling for five years at the Lowell Police Academy, and the academy director called him a good role model who was hand-picked by a black police commissioner.
In 1993 Sgt. Crowley repeatedly tried to save the life of black Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis after he collapsed during practice. Even though Mr. Lewis had no pulse, the officer, who was then with Brandeis University, kept attempting to revive the player who had died of cardiac arrest.
Sgt. Crowley’s own force came to his defense, saying nothing he had done was racist.
“The whole story hasn’t been told,” Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Hass told reporters, adding the panel would help to “really disclose” everything that happened.
The commissioner said Mr. Gates’ attorney had approached the police with a request to drop the charges, which they did this week after working with the district attorney. He also disclosed that while Mr. Gates was away there had been a break-in at his home which was investigated by Harvard police.
In his official police report on the incident, Sgt. Crowley said he could see the man he later identified as Mr. Gates in the foyer of the home through the glass paned front door. He identified himself, explained the report of a break-in, asked for Mr. Gates to come outside but the professor refused and then shouted “Why, because I am a black man in America?”
The report said Mr. Gates accused the officer of being racist and was “leveling threats that he wasn’t someone to mess with.” Sgt. Crowley wrote in the report that the professor kept yelling and when they went outside it drew the attention of people on the street. He then arrested him for disorderly conduct.
Mr. Gates said in his interview with TheRoot that he couldn’t have been yelling since he had a severe bronchial infection.