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Harvard scholar versus Cambridge police

Aug 04, 2009

by Lisa Rea

Most of us have heard all about the police incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard Square. A Harvard scholar by the name of Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home after a neighbor called the police concerned someone was breaking into the house. This occurred at 12:30pm after Gates had just returned to his home from an international flight to China.

What ensued from this point on is what many of us are talking about in the U.S.  The arresting Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, attempted to investigate the possible break-in. Much is not clear regarding who said what and how. But what is clear is that race in America and how law enforcement treats those individuals who are under suspicion is real. And it's something we must discuss.

The accompanying link from National Public Radio is a interesting commentary worth listening to.

No matter how you view this incident, or whose side you're on if you have taken sides, the reality is that we have a problem.  It's not a new problem. It's been around a very long time. But it is troubling. Is it all about racial profiling, which is what we call it now in the U.S.?  The definition of racial profiling in my view is when law enforcement make assumptions about a potential suspect based on race.  I would say this is not all about racial profiling. But it is certainly something that many people of color still very much fear.

What does this have to do with restorative justice? I think quite a bit. President Obama made a public comment about this case last week igniting a fire storm because of it. He said that the Cambridge Police had acted "stupidly" in its response to Henry Gates by arresting him after he had shown two sets of ID. No matter what you think of the president's comments, and his subsequent comments, saying in essence that he could have perhaps chosen a better word to describe what he thought., the president weighed in on a very real problem facing the U.S. criminal justice. That problem underscores the fact that our criminal justice system, which includes law enforcement, has a credibility problem. I would say, and many research surveys would back me up, that much of that distrust is coming out of communities of color. Do people of color have a reason to distrust the justice system? I would say they sure do. Are people of color often treated differently by the justice system? I don't think there is question that that is indeed the case.  So where do we go from here?

The president in recent days reached out to both the officer and to the Harvard scholar. President Obama not only made contact but he has invited the two to join him at the White House for a chat, we're told.

I think that 's great. It might seem a little odd, but at the same time this is an explosive issue as we have learned in the last week. It's explosive and Obama is the first black president of the United States. I think his actions reflect the fact that he knows the current criminal justice system has flaws.  But what Obama has done is introduce the idea of victim-offender dialogue. You might question which person plays which role, but regardless we have conflict here that has ramifications perhaps nationally.  The president is right. Let's have a dialogue: a very simple and basic form of restorative justice includes bringing the two parties together to talk often with a trained mediator. This certainly is a different kind of mediator but I like the concept.

Could law enforcement and race relations between police departments and the public they are sworn to protect improve by better communications? I am sure it could. And it has in the U.S., depending where you live. We know that the concept of community policing is very much reflective of restorative justice principles encouraging better communication between law enforcement and community members. It also encourages more direct participation by community members in their local criminal justice system. Some cities need must more of this "hands-on" involvement that provides more transparency between those who have the power to protect, and arrest, and those who live in any given community. But most of us doing restorative justice would argue all communities need active involvement by community members. Doesn't matter where you live.

The fact remains though in the U.S. that race is a factor in arrests and convictions. You need only look at the numbers of those in our jails in prisons. They are disproportionately people of color.

Are some arrested and convicted because of the color of their skin? Yes. Have we at times convicted and sentenced a person for a crime he has not committed based on the color of his skin? I believe there is no doubt we have.  I think that is what first stunned me by this case. I have had a hard time with this news story since it appeared and each day as more detail has emerged.  It's hard to say who was right and who was wrong or if both parties are to blame.  But I like the idea of examining how we administer justice in America and expanding our evaluation of the justice system to the community level. That takes you to law enforcement and how those who are first arrested, or interviewed, as possible suspects are treated.

I believe that we all need to be aware of assumptions we make, regarding guilt and innocence, based on racial identity. The expansion of the use of victim-offender dialogue is wise. If we used restorative justice processes to resolve conflicts, or attempt to, we would improve relations between people of color and law enforcement. But hopefully President Obama would not be needed as the mediator and the location of that first dialogue would not be the White House.

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Lorenn Walker
Lorenn Walker says:
Aug 01, 2009 02:29 AM

Thank you for the great commentary Lisa! President Obama provided a wonderful service by modeling how conflicting people can communicate and come to understand each other better. As painful as this incident was, it had positive results in teaching people to communicate, and also in addressing racial and class bias in our country. Conflicts are inevitable in life, but how we respond to them (i.e., by fighting more or trying to communicate) is within our power to control. This situation too shows how conflict can also lead to deeper understanding between people. <br /> <br />I also agree with you and NPR's Michel Martin that prejudices influence the justice system. Not only do individuals in the system have prejudices that prevent them from seeing people as human beings just like they are, but the system as a whole, also has prejudices against whole groups of people. <br /> <br />Besides racial prejudices, I think there is ample evidence that poor people are often automatically judged negatively by the justice system. Poor people are frequently considered losers who didn't work hard enough to do better, and they are to blame for all their problems. <br /> <br />Also many of the labels that some of us use when describing people in the system, i.e., &quot;cases&quot; offender&quot; &quot;victim&quot; &quot;inmate&quot; &quot;convict,&quot; dehumanize individuals, and put them into categories that do not honor their value as people. <br /> <br />An incarcerated man who recently took a restorative justice facilitator training program in a Hawai’i prison, said that he found the training to be an “inspiration that has caused me to look at life in a different way. Because now I can call myself a human being instead of just a convict.” <br /> <br />All people have some value. People who have hurt others especially need opportunities to learn and appreciate that others, and themselves, have good qualities. People who have been hurt too need opportunities to heal. These are things that restorative justice recognizes and something that our current system tends to ignore. <br /> <br />Restorative justice sees people has having worth and being entitled to a voice in what they need when they have been hurt or have hurt others. Restorative processes respect people, which is exactly how we want people to treat each other. President Obama nicely modeled this too. <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />

Janine Geske
Janine Geske says:
Aug 01, 2009 02:29 AM

I do think that it would have been helpful to have a neutral intervene among the various people who were involved in this conflict. <br /> <br />See: <a href="" rel="nofollow">[&hellip;]/</a> <br /> <br />

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Aug 03, 2009 05:22 PM

Thanks, Janine for your comments &amp; the link to your site and your blog. I will read it carefully. I agree with you that the meeting, and the meeting place, was far from neutral. <br />I guess bringing in the vice president was a late attempt to add a more neutral party since the president knew (and was friends with) Mr. Gates. <br /> <br />I am sure others will appreciate your comments given the great work you do at Marquette University Law School. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />

Henry McClendon, Jr.
Henry McClendon, Jr. says:
Aug 02, 2009 09:54 AM

It will be a wonderful day in America when a mediated dialogue after an incident like this is considered normal. Of course, they all can't take place at the white house, but there is some neutral location in every community that would do. It should be available to every willing offender and victim. <br /> <br />As you indicated, it's not clear in the case of the professor and the officer, who was the victim and offender. It is very possible that they each were partly victim and offender. <br /> <br />Was the officer just doing his job or Did he make assumptions about the professor because he was black? Was the professor an innocent victim of racial profiling or did the professor assume because the officer was white, his actions and motivation were racist? <br /> <br />At some point did poor choice of words and pride simply push either or both of these men beyond the point of no return? Personally, I don't know them nor have I heard enough from either of them to make judgement. <br /> <br />Hopefully,during their meeting with the President or at some point in the near future the following important questions are answered by these two men: <br />1. What happened? <br />2. What were you thinking at the time it occurred? <br />3. What have you thought about since? <br />4. Who was impacted by your actions and in what way? <br />5. What do you need to do to make things as right as possible? <br /> <br />Their public responses to these questions (including a written agreement to question 5) could be extremely beneficial as our nation still struggles to heal old racial wounds. Doing it openly will help other see how to have the dialogue and create something positive out of the conflict. <br /> <br />The election of Mr. Obama was clearly a giant step for our nation, but let no one be lulled into the belief that our problems with race are fixed. <br /> <br />Hopefully this encounter between the professor and the officer will be seen in history as a defining moment in our journey toward racial healing. <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />

Avo Üprus
Avo Üprus says:
Aug 02, 2009 02:40 PM

Yes, Lisa, the case was touched in estonian newspapers too. They had more attention on topic what bier was on the table in White House, but what I though is absoutly same what You discribed. Obama mediated the case as His forebears probable did. Not on the Texas manner, or wild west manner – he did it as First Nations did. <br />Greetings and blessings. <br />Avo &Uuml; <br />Tallinn <br /> <br />

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Aug 03, 2009 04:46 PM

Hello, Avo. Great to hear from you. Do you have issues related to the targeting of certain types of individuals due to their racial, ethnic/or religious identities there in Estonia? I see this as a possible opening to further discuss &quot;racial profiling&quot; and restorative justice. Certainly the broader issue of police conduct, or misconduct, is something that should be examined while considering how restorative justice principles might be applied. <br /> <br />Best to you, <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Aug 03, 2009 09:07 PM

Hello, Henry. Great to see your comments. I think you pointed out a number of important points here. I liked your first point in particular that hopefully in the future restorative justice dialogues will be the norm and not the exception. <br /> <br />Like most Americans, and others watching this case unfold around the globe, I was left with many thoughts and many questions. I kept thinking how I would have reacted if I were Gates. I know I would have been angry at the police had they approached me at my doorstep in broad daylight after having trouble getting into my own house. If that episode happened to me where I live in a suburb outside Sacramento, California I'll bet the police would have checked my ID (perhaps) and gone home. That is what troubles me. <br /> <br />If there is a desire to take this further and truly learn from our encounters (between victim and offender or between victim and law enforcement/or someone representing authority) then I would hope we will think about stereotypes as you described. Did both the police officer and the victim (Gates) jump to conclusions? I think so. However, it was Gates who was arrested. What worries me is if Gates had not been a high profile individual (Harvard scholar with a relationship with Pres. Obama) then most likely he would have been held in jail for more than four hours. Then what? <br /> <br />If we are to learn how to apply restorative justice principles to conflict, particularly in minority communities, then dialogue is essential. That dialogue will need to happen BEFORE individuals are arrested prematurely. Mutual respect must exist between, in this case, law enforcment and minority communities. <br />I do not think that exists today in most large cities in the U.S. That is part of the problem. That is why we are continuing on with the discussion about this arrest and why around this country there are a wide variety of views or opinions about what actually did happen. <br /> <br />Respect between people does not come quickly especially when there is a history of lack of respect and, in many cases, miscarriages of justice. <br /> <br />Appreciate your comments again, Henry. I hope that there in Detroit, Michigan some day you will be an example of a city that supports restorative justice and is experiencing it on all levels of the justice system. I can see you being a part of that effort. <br /> <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />

Connie White
Connie White says:
Aug 02, 2009 10:05 PM

Yes, there was no doubt in my mind when I heard Obama offer the &quot;biergarten conversation&quot; that he was using the &quot;teachable moment&quot; as he phrased it to model dialogue as a way of resolving issues rather than continued adversarial confrontation. I immediately said to myself, &quot;Yes! He knows the best way to show us how to approach this kind of problem.&quot; Whether he would use the term Restorative Justice or not, clearly being steeped in community organizing, which itself uses dialogue between parties as its basic method of community building, Obama understands its effectiveness. Even if the afternoon meeting in the White House garden did not come to any &quot;breaking news&quot; conclusions, it served to ratchet down the encroaching hostility and perhaps show others that there IS another way -- a way that is more Restorative whether it is termed that or not. I think it was a tremendously positive step and I hope it is one that will be seen as a model for future teaching. Thanks, Lisa, for your comment.

Kimberly J Cook
Kimberly J Cook says:
Aug 04, 2009 03:30 PM

hi folks.. Lisa, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I was traveling in Australia when this happened and had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine there who supports RJ, as I do. We were both pleased and impressed with President Obama's reaction to invite them for a beer to discuss things. It was also good that he condemned the act (the cop &quot;acted stupidly&quot;) and offered an opportunity for dialogue. The dialogue has been at time heartening and at time very disheartening. I won't rehash all that since others have been offering their take. I see this as a clear consequence of the racial profiling tactics of modern policing culture. I also see the problem as a clear consequence of toxic machismo in modern policing. Don't misunderstand me; not all police officers are prone to the 'tough guy' stance and community policing has taken us a long way towards more service-oriented policing. Yet there remains in modern policing a culture of masculinity that supports and endorses power and control tactics that can lead to rushes to judgment and errors in processing. We see this happen regularly. There are hundreds of wrongly convicted people who have been exonerated and can tell harrowing stories about this problem. <br /> <br />The gathering in the garden was a good first step, among many more needing to be taken. I was discouraged when I heard the police officer's press conference afterwards when he told the world that they both had &quot;legitimate&quot; perspectives and agreed to disagree. On its face, that fails the RJ test where the wrongdoing is to be acknowledged and understood. Nothing much was said about the culture of policing and the &quot;teachable moment&quot; lost some of its potential because of that. <br /> <br />We have a long way to go as a country and as a culture to alleviate the problems that arise from both racism and sexism. <br /> <br />Thanks for listening, Kim <br />

martin says:
Aug 06, 2009 12:03 AM

Thanks for the insight Lisa. I agree that Obama's initiative had great practical value and points to restorative values. I like the symbolism of these moments as an example to the onlookers in both camps. Up until now, most people only have Jerry Springer as a model conflict management. God help us. <br /> <br />I also like the idea of beer being involved in the restorative process - not just for personal reasons. In my homeland of Australia, beer is a symbol of friendship. Many small conflicts are resolved symbolically and practically with a friendly trip to the pub.

Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke says:
Aug 08, 2009 01:16 PM

President Obama introduceg the idea of victim-offender dialogue. He brought the two sides to the table to talk. This is extremely important. Thank you for your wisdom on that Mr. President.

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