08/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Gates/Crowley Rorschach Test

How you react to the case of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley may tell you more about yourself than about the incident itself.

What I have found most disturbing about the case is the nearly universal rush to judgment of almost all commentators, including, unfortunately, the President of the United States.

It is so, so easy to fall back on old story lines to reach a simple conclusion about what really happened.

The quickest, and easiest, conclusion is that this is but one more case of a black man being unfairly accosted by a white police officer. There is certainly ample evidence of historical patterns of racial profiling (including in Professor Gates own voluminous work on the history of racism). So, this interpretation fits an easily available stereotype. A White Cop confronts a Black Male. White racist cop. Easy.

Might even be true. But that ugly well-documented history does not provide the slightest evidence that there was either racial profiling or any racial motivation in this instance. How do we know?

Would calling this incident one more instance of racial profiling represent a rush to judgment?

With the caveat that we really don't know much with certainty, there are ample grounds for wondering if the attribution of a racial role in this case might be unwarranted.

First, a few facts (in case you have been on a deserted island for the last news cycle or two). Gates arrives home in the middle of the day and has to break into his own house. A neighbor reports suspicious behavior to the police.

(Note: my PhD dissertation concerned citizen willingness to report suspicious behavior to the police. This is precisely the sort of situation that public safety demands be reported to the police. If citizens only report things they are certain are crimes, most observed crimes will go unreported. The appropriate citizen threshold for calling the police is reasonable suspicion, not certainty. Seeing someone attempting to gain entry to a house clearly meets this standard -- regardless of the race of the person involved. It is the job of the police, not the citizenry to investigate whether or not what has been observed is actually a crime.)

Cambridge police Sgt. Crowley arrives at the scene and attempts to assess the situation. In the course of his investigation, he asks Gates to show his identification. Crowley's version has Gates getting agitated and confrontational and even verbally abusive, accusing Crowley of racial profiling and even verbally assaulting Crowley's mother.

Is it credible to believe Gates would become so agitated? From Gates' perspective, he is in his own home. And Gates has spent a lifetime documenting and analyzing racism. When confronted by a white police officer, in his own home, could he be prone to conclude, perhaps erroneously, that he had been racially profiled? It is not much of a leap to conclude this is possible. Could he get angry as a result? And see such anger as justified? I watched interviews with several journalists and commentators who identified themselves as personal friends of Gates. All of these friends described him as distinguished, accomplished, and very proud. If his pride was injured (racially motivated white police officer enters his house demanding identification) could he have vehemently resisted cooperating with what he may have seen as an illegitimate inquiry? Could he have become loud and confrontational? I wasn't there and thus don't know what really happened. But the possibility that Gates may have reacted in this way does not seem at all improbable.

Was the disorderly conduct arrest an overreaction? Possibly. But one could reach this conclusion without going anywhere near a racial explanation of events. Would a white homeowner who got agitated and aggressive with a police officer find himself under arrest? Or, as one commentator yesterday morning asked rhetorically, "If the homeowner had been Larry Summers (the white past president of Harvard) rather than the black professor Gates, would he have been arrested?" As a former police officer, and one who has written extensively (and often critically) about police behavior, I think the most likely answer is yes.

There is a code of conduct that dictates police-citizen behavior, especially in situations involving potential danger, such as a call for a suspected burglary. Police must make quick assessments about the threat involved in a citizen interaction. They assess threat by many factors. Race is not a legitimate factor. But demeanor is. Aggressive behavior can be seen as threatening and will be typically dealt with assertively by police.

Even once a physical threat had been removed, there was apparently another level of threat that Gates apparently posed. In the midst of the confrontation, Gates apparently tried to call the Cambridge Chief of Police and threatening the officer: "YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHO YOU ARE DEALING WITH". This was a direct threat to Crowley's authority. Would we want our police officers to back down before a white corporate executive or elected official who threatened to call a Chief of Police? I think not. And a threat to call his police chief might well incline a police officer who is considering whether an arrest is appropriate in the direction of making that arrest.

Such stylized interactions are well-known to most ordinary citizens. If you get pulled over by a police officer for a traffic infraction and you react with some contrition and humility, you have a fair chance of escaping with an oral warning. Challenge the officer, and you get a ticket. With certainty. Regardless of your race.

Should citizens be more free to express their emotions when confronting the police? One could make a case that we should. Certainly, we should feel free to challenge what we see as inappropriate police behavior free from fear of recrimination. A free people should not have to cower in front of the police.

But most would agree that there is a point where such a challenge may be so confrontational that it interferes with legitimate police work. Of course, we don't know enough about this particular encounter to know how severe any provocation may have been.

We could have a very reasonable discussion about what public policy in this area should be. If we want to constrain police discretion, it should be the product of open discussion and explicit policy change at the departmental level.

But the current norm is that if you aggressively, disruptively, and publicly challenge a police officer, you may see the criminal code invoked against you. And Sgt. Crowley did not invent this norm. Nor is there any necessary racial basis for its application in this instance.

I have reflected honestly about how I would react if I were confronted by a police officer under identical circumstances to those faced by Professor Gates. I am quite certain that I would have thanked the officer for his concern. And I would have readily provided identification upon request. Then again, I was once a police officer and know well why he would ask for it. Of course, I would not see the request through the same racial prism that Professor Gates did. So my reaction to the identical request would likely have been quite different from his.

Was this an instance of racial profiling? Did Gates overreact to a reasonable police request? The truth is that we simply do not have enough information to know what really happened in this case. Yet most people are prone to render a judgment non-withstanding this lack of definitive information. Therefore, your answers to these questions are likely to tell us more about your own prior life experiences and perspectives than anything about this particular incident. We all are prone to "fill in the blanks" with stories based upon our own experience.

This case presented an interesting twist on a common situation. The black accosted citizen was not, in this instance, powerless. Indeed he is a prominent Harvard professor who counts the President of the United States among his friends.

For his part, the President was right in asserting yesterday that the matter should not be judged until all the facts are in. He then immediately violated his own principle, proclaiming that the Cambridge police department had acted "stupidly." This was an uncharacteristic faux pas. If Obama had at some point in his life been the victim of racial profiling, the issue may be visceral for him. And he may have felt the desire to defend someone he acknowledged is a personal friend. Still, this rush to judgment represented a rare loss of control by a President who is normally meticulous about his language. And it was inappropriate for a President to comment, especially before all the facts are known.

I would like to live in a world where black men are treated no differently than white men in every respect. And one where police officers may be judged on the basis of their individual conduct rather than the conduct of those who preceded them.