- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 25, 2009

President Obama on Friday spoke directly with the Boston police sergeant he had criticized in the arrest of a black Harvard professor in a bid to cool an escalating racial controversy that the president admitted he had helped fuel.

In an unscheduled appearance in the White House press room, Mr. Obama told reporters it was “unfortunate” that his own remarks at a Wednesday night press conference had fed the growing frenzy surrounding the July 16 incident.

Mr. Obama had said that Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, and the Cambridge, Mass., police force had acted “stupidly” in arresting and handcuffing Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own home after receiving a report that someone may have been trying to break into the house.

“Because this has been ratcheting up - and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up - I wanted 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. Crowley specifically,” Mr. Obama said Friday.

“I could have calibrated those words differently,” Mr. Obama added.

The president also later spoke by telephone with Mr. Gates, a longtime friend. Administration officials said plans were in the works to follow up on a suggestion by Sgt. Crowley that the three men meet at the White House for a beer.

The controversy began last week after Mr. Gates, a nationally known African-American studies scholar, had forced open his stuck front door after returning from a trip. Although he supplied police officers with proof that he lived in the house, the incident grew increasingly heated after Mr. Gates refused a police request to step out onto his porch.

Led away in handcuffs, the professor was charged with disorderly conduct - charges that were dropped a day later.

Mr. Gates accused the police of racism, calling Sgt. Crowley a “rogue cop” and claiming he was arrested because he was black. Sgt. Crowley, who has taught a course for local police officers on how to avoid racial profiling, defended his actions as routine procedure.

Hours before Mr. Obama’s phone call, Sgt. Crowley joined with local police union leaders at a press conference to demand an apology from the president.

“President Obama said that the actions of the Cambridge Police Department were stupid and linked the event to a history of racial profiling in America,” Sgt. Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said at a news conference, according to Reuters news agency.

“The facts of this case suggest that the president used the right adjective but directed it at the wrong party,” he said.

Sgt. Leon Lashley, a black officer who was at Mr. Gates’ home with Sgt. Crowley at the time of the arrest, said he supported his fellow officer’s action “100 percent.”

President Obama was clearly engaged in damage control Friday, praising Sgt. Crowley after the telephone conversation.

“My impression of him was that he was an outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation,” Mr. Obama said.

But while the president dialed back his criticism, he avoided a direct apology and said he still thinks the police response was disproportionate.

“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 [police] station,” he said. “I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”

Mr. Obama said he hoped the incident could be a “teachable moment” for the nation on racial sensitivities and the often troubled history of blacks and the police in America.

“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,” he said. “Whether I were black or white, I think that my commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio.”

The president’s appearance in the press room seemed to reflect a strategy shift at the White House, driven by the need to tamp down the Gates controversy before it grew even larger.

Mr. Obama admitted that the intense discussion on the Internet and cable television over the Gates incident was distracting attention from health care reform and other priorities on the White House agenda.

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