Thursday, July 23, 2009

Maybe It Wasn’t the Cop Acting Stupidly, Mr. President

Maybe it was the Ivy League Professor
By Michael P. Tremoglie

It was about 9 p.m. on a cool October night when the call came out over police radio.

“Report of a break-in, two black males!” the dispatcher said dispassionately.

The address was near 56th and Baltimore Avenue, in Southwest Philadelphia – the 12th District. The district was a violent place - earning the nickname the “Fightin’ 12th” because of the proclivity of some of the locals to assault police officers.

My vehicle assignment that evening was an Emergency Patrol Wagon (EPW) - or more simply a van. Normally Philadelphia police officers work alone, unless they are assigned to an EPW.

My partner that evening was African-American. He was a taciturn veteran. He knew how to do the job and he knew how to teach rookies as I was then.

We arrived on the scene in a few minutes. This was the “east end” of the district – an African-American neighborhood.

As we approached the house we saw, through an open window, two black men, watching television and drinking beer. My partner let me take the lead – his method of mentoring.

I knocked on the door. One of the men answered. I explained we had a call of a burglary.

He looked at me incredulously. Then, with a grin, said that he had trouble opening the door. He opined that was why someone thought he and his friend were breaking in the house.

It all sounded perfectly plausible to me. I said OK. The man closed the door and I started to return to my vehicle.

However, my partner stopped me.

“Did you get any ID from them? “ He asked rhetorically.

Before I answered, he led me back to the door. This time he knocked.

The same person answered.

He asked for identification. This elicited an angry, righteously indignant, response. His companion joined him. The two shouted at my partner and me.

They said we were only doing this because they were black men. We would never ask white men for identification.

My partner took great exception to this. He became angry.

Just as the situation looked like it was going to explode, an elderly woman came down the steps from the second floor. It was obvious she had been sleeping.

“What is going on here?” she said, bewilderedly.

Then she uttered the words that crystallized everything.

“Who are these men officer? What are they doing here?”

As it turned out, the men had broken into the house – the home of this woman and her elderly sister. They were sound asleep completely unaware that they were there.

The bad guys were very clever. When they noticed the police approaching, one quickly turned on the television. The other took two beer cans out of the refrigerator.

My veteran partner suspected this. He knew something was amiss. There was nothing concrete. It was just a hunch - one that was correct.

There are a lot of variables in police work. There are a lot of uncertainties. Things are not formulaic. Judgments need to be made in nanoseconds.

All of this came to mind as I read about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. He was arrested after police received a call of two black men trying to break into a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Actually, it was Gates and his driver forcing open the jammed door of his own house.

When Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley arrived, he questioned Gates. Apparently, Gates was offended. He accused Crowley of racism.

Reports are that Gates did show identification to Crowley. However, an argument ensued and Crowley arrested Gates.

I do not know why Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct. I know that disorderly conduct, specifically, “DCM3” – i.e. Disorderly Conduct, Third Degree, Misdemeanor - was occasionally used by Philadelphia police to arrest people who were not cooperating with police commands.

You see, Mr. President, it is quite possible that the white police sergeant, James Crowley, was not “acting stupidly” as you say. It is quite possible that the distinguished, black, Ivy League university professor was the one who was “acting stupidly.”

Perhaps he was in a bad mood because, after traveling half way around the world, he could not open the door of his expensive house in an affluent neighborhood - a neighborhood in which the white police officer cannot afford to live.

Mr. President, if you really want to bridge the racial divide, then you need to recognize that racism is just as much not blaming someone because of their race as it is blaming someone because of their race.

It is time, Mr. President, to stop casting white police officers as Bull Connor.

Michael P. Tremoglie is the author of the critically acclaimed police novel “A Sense of Duty” available at

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