A rather typical encounter

Last week’s media frenzy surrounding the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. illustrates once again that concerns about racial profiling and police abuse are as potent as ever in American culture. The incident itself is fascinating not only because of what happened, but because of what didn’t happen. No blood was shed, no property destroyed, and no one will be facing years behind bars. Instead, we’ve witnessed a rare event in which the media has had the opportunity to debate a much more common scenario: a misunderstanding that escalated into hostility and a questionable discretionary arrest.

As far as Officer Crowley is concerned, we fail to understand why an arrest was made. Once Dr. Gates had demonstrated his residency at the home, Crowley’s purpose of investigating a possible break-in had been resolved. There was no need to remain on the premises. Gates behavior, hostile or not, wasn’t illegal, and Crowley didn’t have to stick around and absorb Gates’s accusations. Considering how many difficult and often-dangerous people police must deal with on a daily basis, a few angry remarks from an indignant individual shouldn’t phase a professional officer. Mistakes and misunderstandings are part of the job, and an officer who can’t be patient with frustrated citizens probably isn’t well-suited to do police work.

Similarly, Gates himself failed to control his temper and allowed his emotions to shape the tone of the encounter. Although he believed that his race was a factor in making the officer suspicious, there was no practical value in articulating that concern. Crowley was investigating a 911 call from a concerned neighbor and was legally obligated to make contact regardless of the race of the suspect. Moreover, remaining calm when dealing with a police officer is the right choice regardless of the circumstances. Being relaxed shows confidence, simultaneously reducing suspicion and allowing an officer to back down and save face. Citizens have a First Amendment right to criticize police, but if your goal is to avoid negative outcomes it’s better to remain calm, assert your rights if necessary, and sort out any legal disputes in court.

Despite FYR’s commitment to combating racial profiling, we must acknowledge that on a case-by-case basis it’s usually impossible to prove racial profiling. There’s just no way of knowing what went through Crowley’s head when he first encountered Gates. Absent the use of ethnic slurs, for example, suspects who believe they’ve been profiled can’t easily prove it and have nothing to gain by attempting to do so at the scene of the encounter.

Calmly and confidently asserting your rights is the most effective response, even where race appears to be a factor. Although racial profiling is technically a violation of the 5th Amendment right to due process and the 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law, such violations are typically accompanied by more measurable constitutional violations. Illegal searches, false arrests, and excessive force are considerably easier to prove in a court of law. Yet the vast majority of citizens have not been taught how to recognize basic constitutional violations and respond through the appropriate channels. For that reason, all those working to combat racial profiling can prevent far more injustices by adding a healthy dose of know-your-rights education to existing advocacy efforts.