WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Friday backed off his contention that police had acted “stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard University professor on disorderly conduct charges at his own home, hoping to tamp down an escalating racial furor that has diverted attention from his policy agenda.
The president, making a rare surprise visit to the White House press briefing room, conceded that he had chosen the wrong words in saying the Cambridge, Mass., police department had blundered. He said his comments had “obviously helped” to ratchet up a debate about race relations that was growing more tense by the hour.
“So to the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate,” Obama said.
The president on Friday also phoned the arresting officer and the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., inviting them to the White House to discuss the disagreement over a beer.
Obama stopped short of apologizing for his remark about the police, which he made during a prime-time news conference Wednesday. But he said that in his conversation Friday with Sgt. James Crowley, he acknowledged that “I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically – and I could have calibrated those words differently.”
At the news conference, Obama had used stark language in blaming Cambridge police for an arrest that he said should never have happened. Over the next two days, he tempered his position, saying Gates might also have been at fault.
“I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station,” Obama said. “I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”
What led Obama to this point began with the report of a break-in at Gates’ home July 16. Cambridge police arrived on the scene and questioned Gates, who after returning from a trip to China had been seen trying to force open the front door.
In his police report, Crowley said the professor was “very uncooperative” and accused him of being a “racist police officer.”
Gates’ supporters have said that he posed no threat and was treated with more suspicion because of his race. Gates was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct; charges were later dropped.
Obama’s remarks Friday came just hours after a news conference held by Cambridge police union officials, who said the president needed to apologize. Crowley was present but did not speak.
Without a full picture of what happened, Obama should have stayed out of the discussion, union officials said. Particularly hurtful was Obama’s attempt to link the arrest to racial profiling by law enforcement, they said.
Sgt. Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said: “The supervisors and the patrol officers of the Cambridge Police Department deeply resent the implication and reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case they have allowed a person’s race to direct their activities.”
Obama’s attempts Friday to put the Gates matter to rest reflected growing apprehension at the White House that the incident threatened to overwhelm the president’s crowded policy agenda. Keeping the nation’s focus on his proposed health care overhaul has become increasingly difficult, Obama conceded.
In one respect, Obama did not backtrack: He seemed unwilling to drop the idea that race played a part in Gates’ confrontation with police.
Describing Crowley as an “outstanding police officer,” the president said: “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.”