Friday, July 24, 2009

Jumping to Conclusions

"Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Indian prayer

I learned many things in journalism school — the most important, probably, were the nuts and bolts of news writing and news editing.

I carried those lessons with me into most of the jobs I have held in my life, from being a general assignment reporter to working on a copy desk to instructing young journalism students and preparing them for their own careers in a field that has always been very special to me.

But today, as I read a commentary by Maria (Maki) Haberfeld at, it occurred to me that I haven't always followed the admonition I received in journalism school — although it actually is something my parents instilled in me when I was a child — to withhold judgment until all the facts are in.

Haberfeld was writing about Barack Obama's comment during his press conference the other night that the Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. last week.

In fact, I said almost the same thing the day before Obama did in this blog.

But I have to conclude, based on Haberfeld's observations, that the president and I — and countless others — were wrong to do so. At least, at this point.

The president and many other black Americans were responding from the perspectives of those who have lived as black people in America. Given the facts that Gates is black and the arresting officer is white — and the use and frequent abuse of racial profiling is known to exist, even if it is not always acknowledged — that is an understandable reaction.

I am not black, but there have been times in my life when my actions or statements were misunderstood by people who did not know — and often did not bother to find out — all the necessary facts.

The police officer in this case was responding to a citizen's report that there appeared to be a break–in occurring at Gates' home. According to Gates, the front door of his home was jammed when he returned from a trip to China. Only Gates and the investigating police officer know how that information was relayed to the police — and whether it was complete and accurate.

With that in mind, let me share with you a couple of Haberfeld's observations. She is a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York:

"One needs to understand that the interaction between a police officer and a suspect is just part of a larger context," Haberfeld writes. "When a neighbor calls the police to report a burglary in progress and a police officer is dispatched to respond, a decision–making process begins for the officer."

That decision–making process includes the experiences police officers have had on the job. It is certainly a fact that these experiences can breed racism in some people. But, as Haberfeld points out, these experiences also play an important role for people who must respond to all kinds of situations, many of which can turn deadly at a moment's notice.

"Yes, the professor identified himself as a legitimate occupant of the premises," Haberfeld writes. "However, he was not arrested for trespassing. He was arrested for disorderly conduct.

"Police officers arriving at the scene of a suspected burglary in progress do not put down their armor of suspicion just because somebody proved to them that they are the legitimate occupants of the dwelling. ... A person usually does not break into his own house — it is true that it can happen, and it apparently did in this case — but this is not a standard behavior that, once explained to the officer, should mandate an automatic approach to put down your guard."

Police work, of course, is an extreme. Seemingly innocuous situations can get out of hand rapidly. And, while the public may be apt to forget instances when police officers are killed in the line of duty, as Haberfeld points out, "police officers carry these stories as their secret weapons."

Perhaps racism did play a role in Gates' arrest. To this point, though, is there any evidence of that, aside from the facts that the arresting officer and the person who was arrested are members of different racial groups and Gates accused the policeman of racism?

It is best to know the whole story before jumping to a conclusion. Let's wait until all the crucial questions have been asked and all the information has been gathered before handing down our verdict.

I am reminded of something.

When I was growing up, there was a popular TV series based on the Neil Simon play and movie called "The Odd Couple." Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starred in the film; Tony Randall and Jack Klugman starred as the fussy Felix and the slovenly Oscar in the TV series.

In one episode of the TV series, Felix and Oscar were wrongfully accused of ticket scalping by an undercover policewoman who did not bother to get the whole story. So the case wound up in court.

During the proceedings, Felix acted as his own attorney. He questioned the policewoman on the stand and got her to admit that she assumed a crime was being committed.

Making use of a chalkboard in the courtroom, Felix wrote the word "ASSUME" and said, circling the appropriate sections of the word as he did so, "You should never assume. Because when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME!"

Circumstances are not always what they appear to be.

In fairness to all, I urge the president — and any who take their cue from him — to withhold judgment until all the facts are in.


Alex said...

David - thanks for a thoughtful and interesting post as usual. And I'm sure you're right that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

I'm not sure I agree, though, that Obama's position was necessarily a product of being a black man. In fact, when you look at the text, Obama never said anything even remotely close to the suggestion that the police officer was racist. He simply said it was "stupid" to arrest someone after they'd proven they were living in the house they were supposedly breaking into, even if "words were exchanged."

I still think he's right about that, and I think Haberfeld's wrong to say that it's ok for a policeman to arrest someone, black or white, in this situation.

David said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Inspector Clouseau said...

We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor's home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.