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Police Groups Call For Obama Apology

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a surprise move, President Obama sought to quell the fear still swirling around the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Officers were called to investigate a suspected break in last week and arrested Gates at his own home on charges of disorderly conduct. Charges were dropped, but the debate about race, class and law enforcement continues from Cambridge, Massachusetts to the White House.

Here's NPR's Tovia Smith in Boston.

TOVIA SMITH: This whole incident has become something of a contest of who's more insulted, the esteemed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was deeply offended by police questioning him in his own home or the police officer, who was indignant at suggestions he did anything wrong, racist, rogue, as Gates put it. Or that he acted stupidly, as President Obama had stated.

Mr. STEVE KILLIAN (President, Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association): Cambridge police are not stupid. I think everybody that knows us knows that.

SMITH: Steve Killian is president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association.

Mr. KILLIAN: I think the president should make an apology to all law enforcement personnel throughout the entire country who took offense to this.

SMITH: Police officers say it was wrong for the president to even suggest a link between this case and racial profiling. And Sergeant Dennis O'Conner, head of another Cambridge police union, says it was inappropriate for President Obama or Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to comment at all, after acknowledging that Gates was a friend and that they didn't yet know all the facts.

Sergeant DENNIS O'CONNER (Chairman, Cambridge Superior Officers): Usually, when one hears those words, one would expect the words - the next words would be, so I cannot comment. Instead, both officials, both admitted friends of Professor Gates, proceeded to insult the handling of this case by the Cambridge Police Department.

SMITH: For days, the president had stood by his words saying he didn't understand what all the fuss was about. But in an extraordinary move today, President Obama came to address reporters in the White House briefing room.

(Soundbite of briefing room)

President BARACK OBAMA: Hey. Cameo appearance.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Pres. OBAMA: Sit down. Sit down. I need to help Gibbs out a little bit here.

Unidentified Man: You're the new press secretary?

Pres. OBAMA: I, you know, the - if you got to do a job, do it yourself.

SMITH: President Obama said he spoke by phone today with arresting officer Sergeant James Crowley. He called him an outstanding police officer and a good man. But the president stopped short of a direct apology.

Pres. OBAMA: Because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently.

SMITH: The president said he still believes that Sergeant Crowley overreacted in the incident, but that Professor Gates probably did too.

Pres. OBAMA: You know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues. And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.

SMITH: President Obama says the call ended with jokes about having both Gates and Crowley to the White House for beers. The president later called Professor Gates, and by the end of the day, both had been officially invited. For many, it was the kind of conciliatory tone that's been sorely missing. Earlier this week, when authorities dropped the charges against Gates, some hoped that would defuse the controversy. But as one police officer suggested today, maybe the case should've gone to trial, so the facts would come out and cooler heads might prevail. Then again, on a subject this heated, maybe not.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.
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