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07.26.09

What a Cop Is Supposed to Do

A former New York City detective says that Sgt. James Crowley violated the oldest rule in the book: He lost his cool.

Read other takes on Gates' arrest from Daily Beast writers.

In New York City, police officers are dispatched by radio (Central dispatch) to what they call a “job” that can be anything from a homicide, to an accident, or, like the Henry Louis Gates incident, a possible burglary in progress. If no action is required at the scene, the police officer reports back to Central that the report was “unfounded.”

The Gates incident is a sad commentary on the state of racism that lives on in America. I was a police officer in New York during the tumultuous 1970s, but 30 years later I still hear the n-word used more often than I would like and from people supposedly more politically correct. The incident inside Mr. Gates' home is about racism on so many levels. The woman who called in the “supposed” break-in of two black men into a home in a predominately white area started the ball rolling. If they had been white men, would she have made the call? Only she can answer that.

Mr. Gates, who I am sure has suffered his share of racial prejudice over the years, reacted not just as so many of us would have had a police officer demanded that we produce our identification in our own home, but I would guess that his nastiness toward Sgt. Crowley was fueled by previous racial insults. One of the troubling factors about Sgt. Crowley loosing his cool with Mr. Gates is the fact that Mr. Gates uses a cane because he has a very serious handicap. I don’t think it has been reported, but because one leg is much shorter that the other, Mr. Gates wears one shoe that has a platform to compensate for the shortness of that leg. What the hell was the cop thinking?

Considering Gates’ age and disability, I would be hard put to find a cop who would not instantly dismiss any thoughts that Gates was a burglar or thief. Instead of trying to calm down Gates, Sgt. Crowley goes off and all hell breaks loose.

Years ago, I witnessed that type of stupidity up close. I remember responding to a report of a family dispute. When we arrived, the husband, who had been verbally abusing his wife, started to mouth off to my partner. The husband was huge; my partner had barely made the height requirement for the NYPD. The man started to walk menacingly toward my partner, who then reached into his holster for his Smith & Wesson .38. Fortunately, I jumped between the two idiots and eventually calmed down the situation, eventually sending the husband off to spend the night at a hotel.

There is no doubt that Sgt. Crowley felt personally challenged when Gates started mouthing off to him. If Gates had been white instead of black, would Crowley have acted differently? Only Crowley knows the answer to that. But Crowley was the one who is paid to keep his cool. That’s his job! He should have backed out of the house, called for a patrol supervisor, who in all probability would have settled everyone down, and that would have been that. Instead, he threw the cuffs on Gates and probably reported to Central that he had one male perp in custody. His report of the incident to Central should have been a simple “Unfounded.”

John Connolly is a former New York City detective turned journalist. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, and is currently finishing a book called The Sin Eater on disgraced and imprisoned Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano.