Posted on June 17, 2010

Review Finds No Links to Race, Arrests

Rochelle Sharpe and Maggie Mulvihill, Boston Globe, June 17, 20109


Gates [Henry Louis Gates Jr.], who is African-American, described his arrest as a “teaching moment” about race relations in America.

His case drew national attention to the relationship between policing and race. {snip}

But a review of the Cambridge department’s handling of disorderly conduct cases from 2004 to 2009 finds no evidence of racial profiling. Instead, the analysis by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting finds that the most common factor linking people who are arrested in Cambridge for disorderly conduct is that they were allegedly screaming or cursing in front of police.

Of the 392 adults arrested for disorderly conduct, 57 percent were white, and 34 percent were black. That racial breakdown almost exactly mirrored the racial composition of the population that Cambridge police investigated for disorderly conduct, the center’s analysis shows.


The most striking conclusion of the review of Cambridge police data is that the majority of those arrested for disorderly conduct were allegedly yelling, often screaming obscenities, in front of police before the handcuffs snapped shut. More than 60 percent of the disorderly arrests reviewed by center involved some sort of allegedly inflammatory speech, such as talking back to the police, more commonly known as “contempt of cop.”

A substantial minority of those arrested for the crime also shared another trait: 17 percent of them were homeless.


The Gates controversy began last July, when Crowley [Sgt. James Crowley] arrested Gates for disorderly conduct outside his home, after responding to a dispatcher’s call about a potential break-in at the house. According to the police report, Gates became uncooperative during the incident. “Is this how you treat a black man in America?” Gates recalled saying at the time.

When Crowley asked to speak with him outside his home, Gates replied, “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside,” according to the police report.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert C. Haas, who declined to comment on the Gates case, said that speech is never the sole basis for an arrest.


Haas called the Gates incident “a major crisis” for his department. He said his department conducted a study of its use of disorderly conduct charges between 2004 and 2008. The analysis, which also concluded race was not an issue, will be posted on the department’s website.


Ogletree [Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, Gates’s lawyer] is promoting a new book about racial injustice, entitled “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Race, Class, and Crime in America.” In it, he compares the Gates arrest to the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, which led to race riots.

In an interview, Ogletree said he did not request any arrest data from the Cambridge police nor did he interview police officials or Crowley.


The Gates arrest prompted changes at the Cambridge Police Department. Now, every time officers charge someone with disorderly conduct, they must thoroughly document why they made the arrest. Officers are also receiving training intended to make them more aware of how they react when citizens get angry at them.

Two other reviews sparked by the Gates arrest are underway in Cambridge. This summer, a 12-member committee of law enforcement specialists and academics from around the country plans to release its analysis of “lessons learned” from the incident.