My Henry Lewis Gates Kind of Moment – a quarter century ago

July 26, 2009 at 1:39 pm (By Rodjean)

The latest media dust-up over the confrontation between a Cambridge cop and a professor of African-American history brought to mind a case I tried (lawyer alert) about 25 years ago. A credit card theft ring was working the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas, and a circular described one of the participants as a 30 year old African American woman. An eyewitness saw a woman who fit the description in a back area of a store where only employees should be, and the alert was sounded to look for a black female, about 30 years old, wearing a red top and blue pants. As it happened, there was a 40 year old African American lady wearing a blue top with red pants shopping at Nieman Marcus. That was when things got interesting.

Mall security picked up both women and called the police. The cop arrived to find both women in a holding area in the basement of Saks Fifth Avenue. To make matters worse, the eyewitness had ended her shift and gone home. The first thing the cop did when he arrived was ask both women for ID. The younger woman (who was actually the thief) complied, and she was not arrested immediately, but told to remain in the holding area until the witness could get back to the mall. The older woman, a professor from Purdue, refused to give her ID. The cop politely explained that he was going to have to arrest her if she didn’t hand over her purse. She did not relent, calling the cop a racist and saying her husband was a lawyer (which he was) and was going to “sue” his “ass.”

Guess which woman spent the next 20 minutes handcuffed until the witness arrived?


  1. Donna B. said,

    So… what is the actual law on whether we’re required to furnish ID when requested? It seems that if it’s a traffic stop, there’s justification in assuring one is licensed.

    An old joke:

    Cop: Got any ID?
    Driver: About what?

    Familiarity with southern accents may be needed to “get it”.

  2. Rod said,

    You cannot be arrested for failure to have identification on you. However, yooui must respond and identify yourself if asked by a policeman.

  3. Rod said,

    This has not been an area I have worked in recently, but the rule used to be that a policeman could detain you for about a half hour without quite reaching the threshold of probable cause under a case named Terry v. Ohio. The idea was that a cop needed to have a little time to sort out situations – he shouldn’t be forced to make the arrest/don’t arrest decision before he has some idea what is going on.

  4. amba12 said,

    I can’t trace it now, but I read where someone said Gates had committed the “extralegal offense” of . . . what did they call it? Talking back to a cop, was the essence of it, but it was better put. I’m not sure whether it’s an equally bad idea for anyone, or whether Talking Back to a Cop While Black is worse. It’s ironic that it was another professor, though. Professors have been trained in indignation, and also are not likely to stay arrested, unlike some poor young man whose mama taught him to keep his head down and be silent and polite when questioned by a cop (as Donna Brazile, yesterday, described her brothers being taught); which in extreme cases might not be enough to keep him from ending up on death row for mistaken identity. It’s happened.

    Cops represent the authority of society and as such should be respected. They also have immediate power to fuck you up and so had better be at least treated respectfully. The certainty that some minority of cops abuse that authority and power does not make it either right or safe to assume the cop dealing with you is one of them. There’s also a gray area where cops are just tense and cranky because their job is dangerous, so they may overreact if you’re ungrateful enough to mouth off at them. You don’t know what they’re up against.

    This woman who used to work for me as a caregiver (highly recommended by a friend) was always having trouble with the cops. Claimed they’d follow her and search her for drugs with no cause. She went to court and defended herself from whatever the charge was on the grounds that the cops were harassing her. The ACLU, I think, or maybe it was the NAACP, got involved in her case. Their lawyer who specialized in racial profiling tried to date her; she was very attractive. Not too long after winning her case and contemplating suing the Chapel Hill police, she descended into full-blown crack addiction. She had two teen-age daughters, and came from a very unstable family that she was doing her best to perpetuate. It was a sad waste — besides having the two lovely, deeply ashamed and confused kids, she was professional, intelligent, in nursing school — and incidentally traumatic to me. She and her boyfriend/drug partner at the time (a 40-year-old white guy who looked 25, which should have been a tipoff; ne’er-do-well son of a local HS hoops coach) tried to scam me for money.

    My point? I don’t have one, I’m just rambling. Who wrote this post, by the way?

  5. Donna B. said,

    My sister, when she was a FL highway patrolman called the offense “POT” for “Pissing Off the Trooper”.

  6. Callimachus said,

    Once the call of suspicious activity was made, by a private citizen, the officer was duty-bound to go and investigate the suspects — black, white, or other.

    When the white officer and the black professor came face to face, apparently, the weight of nearly 400 years of race relations in North America settled on their every word, glance, and silence. A white officer in uniform, telling a black man to step outside his home got him going and he said things he probably shouldn’t have said. Which brings us to the other moment; the decision to bust him.

    The police report says Gates was arrested “after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.”

    The man was on his front porch, and he was telling the cop he was acting like a racist. Being a professor doesn’t elevate you to some special class that can dodge arrest. But yapping at a cop is not “disorderly conduct.”

    It’s not a police officer’s job to decide if what you’re doing serves a “legitimate purpose,” and arrest you if it doesn’t. Police officers get a lot of grief — and get little enough in their paychecks to cover it. Everyone knows that’s part of the job: You always seem to see people at their worst, and they always seem to take it out on you.

    FWIW, I had my closest thing to a profiling moment in the summer of 1978, when I was fresh out of high school and working as an electric meter reader. One afternoon during a July downpour I was doing the book in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the inner Main Line. I was a tall, somber, scruffy-looking teen, drenched, wearing a poncho over my meter reader’s uniform and badge. No one answered most of the doors I knocked on, and I already wasn’t going to make the bonus for getting a high percent of the meters read. But someone thought I looked suspicious, I guess, because the police were called. A Lower Merion Township cop cruiser hailed me, and I got inside, grateful for a few minutes of dry space and air conditioning. The cop took down my info, drove off, and that was the last I heard of it.

    We both were white. Neither of us felt an inherent hostility toward the other.

  7. PatHMV said,

    I read some time back that Justice Thurgood Marshall was pulled over by a police officer, for speeding or perhaps just the offense of “DWB” (driving while black). While grilling Marshall, the officer asked him if he had a job, and if so, where. Marshall replied: “I work at the Supreme Court, sir.” He was quite certain that the officer for the rest of his life assumed he had pulled over a janitor for the Supreme Court building.

    I kind of miss the days when you learned such stories from memoirs, rather than the evening news or the latest blog rantings.

    As “Jack Dunphy” (a pseudonym for an L.A.-cop blogger) (quoted at Moe Lane’s place) notes, when a cop is arriving at a situation, he has no idea who you are or whether you’re a threat or not. If he mistakenly decides you’re not a threat, and you are, he runs a real risk of being dead. If he mistakenly decides you are a threat, and you’re not, the absolute most he risks is losing his job, not his life, and the odds are long against him losing his job, as long as he doesn’t just beat you for no reason. All he knows is that somebody thought there was enough of a chance that a crime was going on to call the cops. It’s going to take a few minutes to sort things out; that’s his job. It’s not only the job he has, it’s the job we want him to do, in order to keep all of us safe.

    One of the hard things to judge in our society with stories like yours of the caregiver, amba, is to what extent such harassment can become self-fulfilling prophecies. As the old saying goes, it doesn’t take many bad apples to spoil the bunch. Imagine you’re somebody from a tough background, with some tendency towards instability. You try hard to overcome it. You learn to speak “properly,” you get at least a minimal education. You work diligently, but because you only have a minimal education, you don’t get the greatest jobs in the world. You’ve got a fair amount of stress. How many times do you have to be picked on mostly just for being poor and black before you just say “fuck it, if the world’s going to treat me like a crack whore, I’ll just be one?” That’s not to put the full blame of such an occurrence on the small number of idiot racist cops, but human nature being what it is, it undoubtedly does happen. That’s why groups like 100 Black Men work so diligently to show young black kids in poor neighborhoods that they CAN be successful, if they’ll just study and work hard, and stay away from drugs.

    On the other hand, how many times does an innocent cop have to be falsely accused of racism before he decides “screw it, if I’m gonna get called a racist, I might as well give ’em a reason?”

    This incident has demonstrated, I think, that President Obama is not, in fact, a “post racial” President. A post-racial President would have said that we can’t draw larger conclusions from a single, isolated incident, between two individual human beings. Or, if hell-bent on addressing the issue, a post-racial President might have pointed out the poison we ingest when we view all such interactions through a personal prism of race. Prof. Gates, at least in the understandably tired and fatigued state he was in after a long day of traveling, jumped to the conclusion that the officer was treating him differently because of his race, before the officer had (as best I can tell) given him any reason to think so. A post-racial President might then have pointed out that it’s no more right to assume a white cop is guilty of racism, just because he’s a white cop, then to assume a black man is guilty of a crime, just because he’s a black man, but when we focus so much on race, we inevitably start looking at the world through that poisonous prism, and assume that the traits of the worst members of each racial group are common to all members of that group. He might then have concluded that it’s important for each of us to avoid racial prejudice in either direction, because each time one of us does that, we add more poison to the system.

    But instead, he picked a side and lept to conclusions without all the facts. Alas.

  8. Rod said,

    My prosecutor friends called it POPO (Pissing Off a Police Officer).

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