Three more notes on the Gates arrest

1. It’s “about” class as well as race.
2. Cops do this stuff, and get away with it, all the time.
3. We ought to do something about that: for example, videotaping every interaction between a cop and a civilian.

1. The racial aspect of the situation has perhaps gotten more than its due share of attention compared to the cop/civilian aspect. The Crowley/Gates confrontation wasn’t very different between the confrontation between Shari Barman and a San Diego Sheriff’s deputy at a Democratic fundraiser, except that Barman was charged with assault and battery on a police officer, a felony. The sheriff has said that he’s investigating the incident, and also that he doesn’t plan to release any information unless he decides to take disciplinary action against his deputies. No report yet on whether the charges against the homeowner, who was apparently the victim of a false police report motivated by political and sexual-orientation animus, will be dropped, nor any indication that charges will be pressed against that man who made the false report and then shouted obscenities at the party-goers.

Yes, cops have a hard and important job, and I’ve expressed impatience with some liberals who seem to be more concerned with controlling police misconduct than with controlling crime. That said, arrest for “contempt of cop” is way too frequent, way too tolerated by the police culture, way too likely to be backed up with false testimony. And that sort of misconduct is way too likely to be supported by prosecutors and way too unlikely to be punished by superiors.

2. The discussion has largely assumed that Gates and Crowley both lost their temper and acted stupidly: Gates by dissing a cop to the point where he got arrested, Crowley for making an unnecessary and unjustifiable arrest. I don’t know Gates, and I haven’t discussed his character with anyone who does know him well, but shouldn’t we at least entertain the possibility that Gates, at some point in the transaction, decided that baiting Crowley into arresting him would constitute a “teachable moment” about police misconduct toward black people? If he decided that getting himself arrested, under circumstances where the arrest couldn’t stand up and would make the police look bad, might protect some younger and less well-connected black man from false charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on a police officer, that wouldn’t have been a silly calculation to make.

This is not to suggest that Gates wasn’t as angry as Crowley was, only that, in the grey light of dawn, he might well decide that he’d done the right thing after all. Now you might reasonably disagree with that choice: it might have the effect of encouraging confrontation wit the cops on the part of people less likely than a Harvard professor to emerge unscathed from the situation.

3. And that points up the class aspect of the situation, which in some ways is as interesting as the race aspect. Crowley’s resentment against Gates stemmed in part from Gates’s (probably unfair) accusation that Crowley’s behavior was racially motivated, but also in part from Gates’s attempt to “pull rank.” And in the aftermath we see that Gates in fact held the high cards: the cop couldn’t really get away with arresting him on a b.s. disorderly conduct charge. And that had relatively little to do with his race, and much to do with his eminence. As Donald Black has shown, it’s a cross-cultural constant that those of higher social status are less vulnerable to legal sanction. But we should try to arrange our institutions to minimize that effect. We haven’t.

One simple suggestion, a generalization of the requirement that all police interrogations be videotaped that State Sen. Barack Obama managed to write into the Illinois statute books: build a cell-phone-type movie camera with sound into police headgear, and require that it be turned on at the beginning of every interaction with a civilian. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And in the cases where it’s the civilian who acts aggressively, the videotape will help defend the cop against a false accusation of misconduct.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: