Norton on the Overlooked Gates-Crowley Settlement of Their Own Dispute and On Avoiding Disorderly Conduct Charges Based on Words
July 29, 2009
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The City of Cambridge, Cambridge Police, and Professor Henry Louis Gates recognized almost immediately that each side had much to gain by settling the dispute that resulted in the arrest of Gates. They initiated a joint statement, rare in the annals of disputes between African Americans and police, on their own before President Obama's press conference, which unfortunately and unintentionally re-focused the matter as a continuing dispute. Why hasn't the initiation of a settlement by the parties been covered the way the dispute itself has been? Perhaps pouring a cold beer on the re-heated dispute will finally help us get on to the discussion that is necessary: pre-conceived impressions of blacks by whites and perhaps of whites by blacks that result in misunderstanding.
There is no way to reach all citizens to be sure they speak courteously to police officers. However, there is an important difference between police officers and the average citizen. Police, unlike civilians, are trained to mitigate rather than escalate disputes. The teaching moment for police departments is to re-emphasize the obligation many carry out to diffuse disputes. In the Gates-Crowley dispute, the officer could have done so by meeting the obligation of any public employee, when asked, to give his/her name and/or badge number, as Gates requested. More seriously, the matter had to be dropped because Gates was arrested for "conduct", i.e. "disorderly conduct." However, there is a Supreme Court case that says that talking discourteously to a police officer is not "conduct," because there is no action in talking, only words. A citizen does not lose her/his First Amendment rights even when trash-talking or worse to a police officer.
It is not hard to imagine how many young people, especially young Black men, start down the road to a record with a disorderly conduct charge under similar circumstances.
See the Gates-Crowley joint statement at: http://www.cambridgema.gov/cpd/News/NewsDetail.cfm?story_id=2250&pv=Yes, and visit me on http://www.facebook.com/ (Eleanor H Norton).