Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harvard Professor Failed Personality Test

Working as I did as a municipal court clerk for more then 25 years in Seattle, I saw my fair share of criminal cases come before the court that also involved police officers having to deal with unruly or abusive citizens or visa versa. Dealing with unruly officers is a story we all have some experience with.

When it comes to the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Gates, that we are all learning more about each day because of the involvement of the President who apparently saw the incident as a teaching moment when asked the question about it in a nationally televised press conference, police and legal profession types have often referred to such a arrest in the classic legal system slang as the citizen who, “failed the personality test”.

What it usually involves is a unruly, drunk or disrespectful citizen/suspect who’s verbal abuse of officers, or other high jinks have given way inevitably to a form of police abuse of power and retribution the cops jokingly call the failure to pass the personality test.

The Gate’s case I think is a classic example.

Often officers will end up more or less throwing the book at the abusive disrespectful person, and taking him to jail for what maybe considered normally minor or chippie violations of the law. The defendant ends up spending the night in jail and having to deal with the pending charges. If the charges are dropped, as was the case in the Gates case, the officer has still successfully played the roll of prosecutor, judge, and jury because the defendant has been punished whether the prosecutorial authority pursues the case(s) or not. In most cases like this one when the charge person has little or no criminal record the punishment of one day in jail and all the legal hassles involved with dealing with the charge(s) are more punishment then the defendant would of received had he in fact inevitably been found guilty.

Professor Gates and President Obama are probably the two worst people in the world for a cop to pick on or deal with in such a circumstance. Gates made his name promoting and teaching civil rights and certainly knows more then the average cop will about racial based abuse by the police in this country. Obama made his political bones as an Illinois State Senator championing laws to protect against racial profiling.

So it’s no wonder that Obama and Gates are apparently making an effort to make the incident a teachable moment for the rest of us oblivious white folks. Maybe in the long run it may raise consciousness, if your not already a right wing racial bigot. In which case it will probably reinforce all your fears about loss of white power because of the election of a African American as president.

When Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times asked the question during the press conference about the Gate’s incident I’m sure Obama though he’s been thrown a soft ball question about a subject he is well verse on, racial profiling. This is where the problem started. He immediately became the professor talking to a class of students at Harvard law school about the history of racial profiling in America. He started off all right by disclosing the professor was a friend and that he knew nothing about the real facts of the case. But soon drifted into a general condemnation of racial profiling in this nation which included the “police acted stupidly it appears in this case” remark. He been better off saying I don’t know what happened but it appears the charges have been dropped, and left it at that. Leaving the teaching for later.

Most knowledgeable observers of the case admit the police overreacted. Even though there is evidence that Gates was abusive to officers in his own home the smart or streetwise officer in most cases would of just said, “have a nice day” and left the scene happy to not have to hear the professor harangue them anymore as racists or profiling. Plus they would of not had to fill out all the paperwork involved with the arrest and booking.

It be back to the donuts shop for them.

It has always amazed me the things people will do when confronted with dealing with a police situation or officer. Standing up to police when your rights are being violated is one thing, but acting stupid or getting worked up when it comes to dealing with the police is another. Usually it involves some form of intoxication. Blacks and Latinos do experience racial profiling and police abuse of power often, especially in locations where that type of thing is institutionalized. That’s a reality that we all must accept and do what we can to overcome.

But in this case I think what really happened here is that both Gates and the officers overreacted. Gates by going into a tirade about race and directing it in a personal way to the officers, and the officers for not realizing that because of Gates personal life experience he needed to blow off some steam. The officers employed the personality test on Gates and in their minds they felt justified because of the no one should ever disrespect police code cops often are encourage to buy into or otherwise known on the street as failing the police personality test.

I'm sure Gates probably felt pretty dumb losing his keys and having to break into his own home to start with. The incident also says tons about his neighbor who apparently didn’t know him well enough to be able to recognize him as the person trying to gain entry through a window, which led them to call 911 in the first place.


  1. Anonymous1:33 PM

    "It be back to the donuts shop for them."
    In this country, one can only stereotype certain segments of society.
    Imagine the outrage if the author wrote-
    "It be back to the cotton fields for them."

  2. Anonymous,I think there's a huge difference between the connotation "back to the donuts shop"
    when referring to modern day cops and "back to the cotton fields for them"(your point) given the racial history in America?