Thursday, July 23, 2009

Memo To Robert Gibbs

Image credit: Cujo359

There are such things as transcripts, which are pieces of paper or hard disk that contain the words a President says in a press conference.

This morning, Robert Gibbs, President Obama's press secretary, was quoted as saying this at this morning's White House press conference:

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reports that President Obama does not regret his comments last night about the arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates -- and that Obama was not calling the officers stupid.

"Let me be clear," said Gibbs. "He was not calling the officer stupid, okay? He was denoting that . . . at a certain point the situation got far out of hand, and I think all sides understand that."

Gibbs: Obama Did Not Call Police Officers Stupid In Gates Case

Here's what the President said last night, according to both the transcript by Lynn Sweet, the reporter who asked the question, and CBS:

Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.

Transcript: Obama's News Conference

[emphasis added]

The President accused the police of doing something stupid. There's no doubt about that in the mind of anyone who clearly understood what he said. There are really only two honest choices here, either:

  • Admit the statement was wrong

  • Stick to it, until and unless you've been proved wrong to your satisfaction

Trying to weasel-word your way out of it isn't going to do it.

I'm not trying to defend the actions of the officers involved. I explained my attitude about these sorts of incidents a few months ago:

Police work is stressful and potentially dangerous. As part of their work, police officers often have to ask questions and do things to us citizens that we find annoying or even painful. People who can't do that work without losing their composure and behaving emotionally or irrationally shouldn't be doing it. Any police department that can't or won't investigate complaints against its officers is a potential danger to the people it's supposed to be protecting. In a time when both the presence of law enforcement and their power to monitor us are on the increase, it's especially so.

Today, We're All Driving While Black

I have no patience for police departments that don't try to rein in or weed out officers who can't do the job properly. That's part of the reason I find the quote from Gibbs so irritating. It only serves to make the President less authoritative on this subject, and we need both clarity and certainty here, not waffling.

Unfortunately, President Obama admitted that he was speaking without knowing all the facts. I can't imagine why the police thought a small, middle-aged man who walks with a cane and was clearly inside his own house was a danger to the public, but it's possible they had reason. Without knowing that part of the story, I'm going to reserve judgment on this, and the President would have been wise to do the same. Nevertheless, he spoke, and trying to pretend he didn't say what he said isn't going to help.

This is yet another example of how you can't have things both ways. Maybe it's time President Van Pelt stopped trying.

UPDATE: At FireDogLake, bmaz writes from the point of view of an attorney who has experience with false arrest cases:

Via Rayne's link to DKos in comments, and the Boston Globe, the Statement of Facts from the official police report [(PDF)] in the Gates arrest:

On Thursday July 16, 2009, Henry Gates, Jr. ___ of ___ Ware Street, Cambridge, MA) was placed under arrest at __ Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.

Signed: Sgt. James Crowley

And therein lies the problem for Sergeant Crowley and the Cambridge PD. It was a patently illegal and insufficient arrest from the start. Gates is arrested for disturbing the peace - of Sergeant Crowley. See the words "directed at a uniformed officer"? This is the epitome of contempt of cop, and that is an illegal and unconstitutional arrest. What is not contained in the statement of facts is any reference to an identifiable citizen/member of the public being disturbed. None whatsoever.

Henry Louis Gates’ Contempt Of Cop

[link from original]

I've read the links I provided earlier, plus some other news reports, and I've decided. This was a case of stupid police work. The cops should have walked away. It's a tough thing to do when you're just doing your job and catching crap for it, but that's what they should have done.

That doesn't change my mind about either what President Obama said last night, nor about the attempt to retract it this morning. The former wasn't handled well, and the latter just makes it all look really silly. Stick to your guns or admit you're wrong - people will respect that. They won't respect trying to have it both ways once you've said something like this.

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