In an attempt to tamp down the escalating controversy over his comments on the arrest last week of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department, President Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room and placed calls to both Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, who arrested the Harvard professor.
Taking the briefing-room podium just hours after Cambridge police union officials called on Obama to apologize for saying the officers involved in the incident with Gates behaved “stupidly,” Obama conceded that he erred in his “choice of words.”
Obama said he spoke to James Crowley, the sergeant who arrested Gates, “and I have to tell you that, as I said yesterday, my impression of him is that he was an outstanding police officer…and that was confirmed in the phone conversation.”
“In my choice of words, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically,” Obama said, walking back his sharpest criticism.
But, the president said: “I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Prof. Gates out of his home and to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Prof. Gates probably overreacted as well.”
At 3:15 p.m., shortly after phoning Crowley and speaking to the press, Obama also placed a call to Gates and had a “positive discussion,” according to the White House.
In a release, the White House said Obama extended an invitation to Gates to appear at the White House with Crowley “in the near future.”
Obama’s conciliatory moves marked an abrupt shift from Friday morning, when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed a suggestion that the backlash from police groups could be distressing to the White House, given that Obama has enjoyed a positive relationship with the law enforcement community.
“I think the Fraternal Order of Police endorsed McCain,” Gibbs fired back at reporters, referring to Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2008 election. “If I’m not mistaken.”
At a Cambridge press conference Friday morning featuring Crowley, union leaders said Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick had both gone after Cambridge officers’ performance without having full information about the incident involving Gates.
Steve Killian, the president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association took exception to the president’s charge that Cambridge police handled the incident “stupidly.”
“Cambridge police are not stupid. I am proud to represent the officers of the Cambridge Police Department,” Killian said. “I think the president should make an apology to all law enforcement personnel throughout the entire country.”
And Alan J. McDonald, an attorney for the police unions, stopped short of calling for an apology, but said he was hopeful both the president and Patrick would issue one.
“We’re not demanding an apology from anyone…hopeful that upon reflection, they will realize that their statements were misguided and will take the appropriate action in the form of an apology,” McDonald said.
While Obama backtracked on the most controversial part of his remarks on Gates’s arrest, he stopped short of a direct apology. And the president said he did not regret having commented in the first place.
Noting that some critics suggested it was inappropriate for the president to comment on a local law enforcement matter, Obama told reporters: “I have to tell you, that part of it I disagree with. Race is still a troubling aspect of our society.”
“Because of our history,” Obama explained, “African Americans are sensitive to these issues.”
Obama’s appearance in the briefing room signaled a quick reversal in the White House’s communications strategy and seemed to reflect a recognition that the growing dispute over Gates’s arrest required a more direct response from the administration.
Just a few hours before Obama took the briefing-room podium, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama had already “said what he’s going to say on this.”
After Obama left the briefing room Friday afternoon, Gibbs took a different line from the podium, telling the press that the president’s remarks reflected an ongoing “conversation” about race.
“These are important issues that play out in our daily lives,” he said.
On a related topic, much of the question in the Henry Louis Gates Jr. case revolves around alleged police animus toward people of color. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“Phila. Blocks City Computer Access to Domelights.com”
By Troy Graham, Staff Writer
Access to the controversial Web site Domelights.com has been blocked from all Philadelphia city computers, following a similar move last week by the Police Department.
The site, which faces a lawsuit from a black police officers organization that alleges it is a forum for racist material, also has restricted access to registered users. Domelights – until this week a publicly available site – is not accepting new members.
Brian Mildenberg, attorney for the black officers group, the Guardian Civic League, said last night that out-of-court negotiations would be held with the city in an attempt to address the concerns of black officers who have long reviled the site as creating a hostile work environment.
Guardian League president Rochelle Bilal said last night that her members’ goal was to shut down the site, which is operated by an active-duty police sergeant who uses the screen name McQ.
Because of threats posted on Domelights, Bilal has a detail of uniformed officers guarding her.
McQ posted a message last week saying he merely provides a forum for discussion and disavowing any racist or sexist material on the site, which he founded in 2000.