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Breaking Into Your Own House

I remember when I called the police on a neighbor. It was on a weekend afternoon, one of the first open-window days of spring, and very quiet. I heard the faint tinkle of breaking glass, and my husband confirmed that he heard it, too. We called the police and told them it sounded like someone broke a window at one of the houses behind ours. Sure enough, there was a man breaking in--but it was the owner, who had locked himself out. No fuss, no bother, no arrests. Did it make a difference that everyone involved was white?

It wasn't such a relaxed outcome in Cambridge, Mass., last week, when Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., was arrested after trying to force open his home's front door, which was stuck. Gates is black, and he has alleged that the white officers who arrested him on a disorderly conduct charge were convinced he was guilty because of racial profiling.

Important social issues like racial profiling and fairness are the big lessons of Gates' experience with Cambridge police. But my mind keeps coming back to the small lessons, like when should you alert the police to unusual activity, and how should you respond when the police come a-calling. And that brings up a second experience calling police about my neighbors.

Another neighbor, recently widowed, left home for the day--with the door wide open. This was highly unusual for this meticulous woman. Her car was gone; no one answered when I called out her name. My husband took a look in the backyard to see if she might be there. I was afraid to go into the house in case there might be a burglar inside. So, once again, a call to police.

Other neighbors gathered and talked with police before they entered her house. One reported seeing a man with a beard in the backyard. I quickly pointed out that had been my husband. (Lesson learned: The backyard walkabout was probably a bad idea.) I mentioned that the neighbor kept a cat, just in case kitty might bolt in front of a nervous police officer. I like to think neighbors vouching for who's who and what's normal vs. unusual can help defuse a situation.

If only Mr. Gates had neighbors on the sidewalk, telling police that Henry was just being Henry, and he belongs at that house. Would they have listened?

By Elizabeth Razzi  |  July 23, 2009; 9:49 AM ET
Categories:  Neighborhoods  
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Since Gates is an obnoxious and arrogant guy perhaps one of his neighbors wanted to get him into trouble; Gates certainly played his part as expected.

Posted by: ravitchn | July 23, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Calling the police when something is suspicious is a good thing, however, I have always heard that if a person becomes (obnoxious; arrogant; belligerent; etc.) a good officer will walk away or try to defuse the situation. This is not what happened and we can talk around it all we want the officer did NOT do his job. Walk away just walk away.

Posted by: rlj1 | July 23, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

But my mind keeps coming back to the small lessons, like when should you alert the police to unusual travesti activity, and how should you respond when the police come a-calling. And that brings up a second experience calling police about my neighbors.

Posted by: bendecanan | July 23, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

One needs to remember that the Boston area is one of the most racist areas in the country. Makes the south and Al look like SF in comparision.

Many folks still believe the NE to be the home of liberal Dems who welcome the poor and the miniorites far from it. Remember the battles in Boston in the 70's regarding bussing. Or during WWII the racial problems and white hatred in Philly almost lost the war because the Philly area had such a large concentration of Defense industries. The Army had to step in and lay down the law especially regarding the hiring of African American bus and trolley drivers etc.

Cops are cops they do not like to ahve their authority questioned especially by minorities or in front minorities, gays and women. This is very true if the officer is white.

The Harvard prof is lucky they dropped charges because the pig would have lied in court about his actions to justify the charge. Judges give pigs the benefit of the doubt and you are screwed if you say something smart ass like comparing the judge's decision to a kangaroo court.

Posted by: sheepherder | July 23, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

You are perpetuating misunderstanding with your emphasis on neighbors calling police. In the Gates case, it was *not* a neighbor, but a passing pedestrian who observed two men forcing open the front door, notwithstanding erroneous early reporting.

In any event, officers have an obligation to enforce the law. They quickly sought to determine who Dr. Gates was, but he initially refused to present ID. After presenting ID, he is reported to have been loud and belligerent. Despite two warnings from the officer to calm down, he followed the policeman outside, hectoring him loudly in front of bystanders. And he is surprised he was arrested?

It seems Dr. Gates is the real racist in this scenario, accusing an officer who was responding to a legitimate call about a possible burglary, of racism merely, it seems, because the officer was white.

If he had been able to keep his temper and his vile assumptions in check, he likely would have had no problem at all with police, certainly no arrest.

He failed. He went to jail. Congrats: now he has some street cred with fellow black males, a million of which are behind bars in America, like Gates, for the things they did to others.

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | July 23, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Disagree, realitychecker. Yes, calling the police was reasonable (though I haven't seen many criminals breaking down doors in suits). Yes, cops did the right thing to ask for ID. But once he showed them that he lived there, they no longer had the slightest reason to stay in his home. It's his property. Once it became clear there was NO crime committed, they needed to get out. We do not live in a police state; there's this little thing called the 4th Amendment. Being angry is not a crime and does not override basic property rights.

Oh: and why was he angry? Because he wanted the cop's name and badge number, which the cop refused to provide. That would have P'd me off, too.

If a cop came into my home and demanded my ID, I would expect a simple, "sorry for the inconvenience" and swift departure. If I asked for his name and badge number so I could file a report, I would expect to get it. But then again, I'm white, so I'd have no reason to expect anything else.

Posted by: laura33 | July 23, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Thank you laura33 you have summed this entire issue up. I'm from Boston and grew-up during the bussing issues. We lived in Roxbury and were bused to Charlestown...not a good idea and YES THERE ARE PLACES IN BOSTON THAT AFRICAN AMERICANS CAN NOT GO IN 2009. The level of racism there is outragious. What happened to Dr. Gates doesn't suprise me but if he wasn't a Harvard Professor no one would care and he would probably be in jail right now. So sad, we haven't come very far have we?

Posted by: Tee2396 | July 23, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

The people who condemn Dr. Gates are taking every word of the policeman's account as accurate, even though he obviously got upset and handled the situation poorly.

They are ignoring Dr. Gates's equally plausible account of this short incident, in which he kept asking for the officer's badge number and the officer ignored him, stayed silent, and would not provide it. According to Gates, this was the main source of dispute.

Just a hypothetical: let's say the officer was irked and decided he wouldn't show his badge, but that is against the rules. Do you really think he would then admit that he pretended not to hear Gates and refused to show his badge? Of course not. He is human. He would say that didn't happen.

Let's not keep retelling the officer's version in a self-righteous tone, typically adding in lots of new details is actually no source for, and assume we have the truth of the matter. In the end, only Gates and the officer do--and I suspect they both remember it differently anyway.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | July 23, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I think it's fair to say that the details of this story have been re-reported in different ways so many times that it is difficult to really know exactly what happened.

If a police officer approached me on my own property, I'm sure I would be uneasy and upset; however, I would certainly still be respectful of the officer. Yelling, insulting him/her, or generally being beligerant doesn't seem like smart behavior when coming into contact with figures of authority who have the power to get you into serious trouble.

I would also be extremely glad I had such vigilent neighbors (and probably more than a little embarassed...!)

Posted by: LisaChristine88 | July 23, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Cop's a professional. Act like one.

Posted by: mason08 | July 23, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

I hope the police officer knows who the mayor is.

Posted by: benlurken | July 23, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Let's do some real reality checking, RealityCheckerInEffect:

Your statements reveal your real opinion -not reality regarding how you feel and view Black Males (or anyone other than yourself):

"he followed the policeman outside, hectoring him loudly in front of bystanders."
Yes - Dr. Gates did do that - after he showed the policeman two IDs which proved Dr. Gates was rightfully wihtin his house. The "bystanders" were other policemen who were surely prepared to defend one of their own against an unarmed 5'7", 150 pound older man who was asking for an explanation for disrespectful behavior by an alleged public servant.

"vile assumptions in check"
Please explain to me what's vile about Dr. Gates' assumptions? Is it that a police officer who was obviously mistaken didn't take the time to be professional and after determining that Dr. Gates lived in the house didn't have the respect or ability to say "Mr. Gates, our concern was with a burgulary - is it possible someone tried to burgularize your home and that is why your door was stuck?" Is is vile for Dr. Gates to make a resonable assumption about police in their relationship to African-Americans?

"He went to jail. Congrats: now he has some street cred with fellow black males, a million of which are behind bars in America, like Gates, for the things they did to others."

Okay - now we get to the payoff - you obviously are so excited to argue that every one of the African-Americans behind bars are there due to their own mistakes. Of course, one could make the same argument that millions of white americans are where they are because of their ability to avoid being caught or held responsible for thier mistakes - at least for a while (Madoff, Ebbers, etc).

The fact is - Dr. Gates is NOT in jail and will surely expose your latet racist and offensive essential nature. You, my friend, are showing your true colors here.

Posted by: dcresident21 | July 23, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Having a lot of trouble with this article. 1) This day in age, a lot of people don't know their neighbors. 2) She thought about going into her neighbor's house uninvited?? 3) "how you should respond if the police come a-calling?" if you're white? or if you're black? the 'should' implies something...i'll hint at it...two words...
would the police ever have been called if there were two "white" men trying to break into the house? would we have known they were "white" men at all? these are rhetorical questions. the police are an extension of a society that has been based on (those two words). i saw Prof. Gates speak a few years ago. He said that because of his impoverished upbringing he only got into college because of Affirmative Action. Would he get into college today?
Did Sergeant Crowley have any idea why Prof. Gates was angry? Did he care?

Posted by: brianschwartz47 | July 23, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

My God everywhere I look there is a whining liberal wondering if the "situation" would have been handled differently if Gates had been white. Most of the bloggers have heard only half the story and then make up the other half.

First of all it was not a neighbor who called the police but a pedestrian. When the police arrived Gates was already inside the house. Some have actually said that the police should have known who he was! The sergeant asked who he was and immediately the tirade began with Gates calling the sergeant a racist and demanding his name which was clearly visible on his uniform shirt. Eventually Gates produced a university ID which did not list his address. Any fool could obtain a university ID if he tried hard enough. Gates continued to berate the sergeant and was eventually arrested for disorderly conduct. The spineless prosecutors office, not wanting to defend this self-important professor, decided to dismiss the charges.

Every police officer will tell you that at one time in his career he has run into someone like Gates. Someone who is offended that the police had taken the time to be sure that a thief was not inside the wrong house and then takes it out on the officer. By the way the demanding of a badge number is a sure sign that the jerk was out of control because that is what most jerks do.

Posted by: MKadyman | July 23, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

I think the policeman got mad at a black man asking for his name and badge and did something stupid. Why couldn't the policeman get over his anger... shades of Rodney King. He had an emotional reaction and all his training failed. The policeman was the professional and he blew it. Even if the man raised his voice, is that a crime? Or is it only a crime for black men? Can we not challenge authority in this country... unless it is a black President whom they say the crudest stuff about. Seems like white people don't understand how much their bias is showing... As a white person I am pretty ashamed of how I hear some whites talk about blacks and this President.

Posted by: goldie2 | July 24, 2009 2:55 AM | Report abuse

I would assume an officer with proper training as he had, would either try to verify that the call was not a hoax first, if he has the time, to verify the owner at that address as they do when pulling over a motorist, and also assuming that it could actually be the owner, and announcing he was a police officer responding to a break-in call first, instead of asking for IDs first. would an officer ask a burglar for ID first? A home owner would probably say "who the hell are you, this is my house". A gun and badge should not over rule over rule home owners rights. The officer should have used more caution and discretion.

Posted by: daniwitz13 | July 24, 2009 3:25 AM | Report abuse

My hat is off to Louis Gates, who by being at the center of this nonsense reveals in stark outline modern america.Mr Gates has succeeded in creating a lucrative career from telling the stories of the most reviled community known to western civilization.The hateful comments directed at him personally, reflect the jealousy and envy white men have leveled against black people since emancipation, oh if only they could claim authentic victim status for their lack of upward social mobility.Why aren't they deserving of coronation? They are every bit as good as any of those uppity blacks they so despise; michael vick, barry bonds,o.j., m.j. the list goes on and on.This "why not me?" world view created "W", keeps limbaugh and his menions on the air and continues to threaten american democracy.For the record, gates is married to a white woman,i see nocomparable rhetoric denouncing the race pimp dershowitz who trapes out his black grandchildren, assuring us of his nonracist intent while denouncing blacks. Where is the outrage! The Bible speaks of the double minded as unstable in all things.To God goes the glory,in Jesus' name

Posted by: MAZZOONI2003 | July 24, 2009 7:38 AM | Report abuse

There may be a lot more to this than racial profiling.

I went to Boston University, across the river, and it was legendary how much the locals hated Harvard. We thought they were a bunch of arrogant so-and-so's too, and there were many jokes about "tossing a Harvie off the footbridge (across the Charles River) to see if they could swim."

The profiling here may not have been racial, but "town vs. gown." It may be that Prof. Gates was arrested not in spite of his being a Harvard professor but *because* of his being a Harvard professor. A good working-class guy was just getting his own back at a perceived class enemy. But wait - we don't have social class in this country any more, do we? Or do we.

Posted by: heckertkrs | July 24, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

If Prof. Gates was white, would anyone be talking about this? And before you say, he wouldn't have been arrested if he was white you should do a search of police blogs about people being arrested for breaking into their own homes. It's probably more common than you think. I personally know of at least one and it unfolded in a similar way.
The "suspect", already embarrassed about being locked out of his own house finds himself confronted with an officer who has the audacity to question what he is doing there. He then responds to this "trespassing" officer in a disrespectful manner. And well, we all know how well officers respond to disrespect regardless of whether it's coming from someone who's white, black, brown, yellow or a prof of race relations.

Should this man have been arrested? No. Should he show respect to the man coming to his aid? Yes.

Do any of us here know all the facts? No, but apparently that hasn't stopped any of us from making our own profile assumptions.

Posted by: RedLog | July 24, 2009 7:26 PM | Report abuse

The police were duty-bound to investigate a probable break-in and they were equally duty-bound to withdraw gracefully once it was determined that it was the homeowner who had to force open his own front door. The Officer should not have entered the home and the kitchen area - which can be percieved as blatant intimidation to most homeowners.

Both Mr. Gates and the Officer exercised poor judgement by their speech and actions.

Posted by: Dharmavadin | July 25, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

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