While we work our way toward the bottom of the Henry Louis Gates case, some words from Lisa Keller's book, Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London (Columbia, 2009), bear pondering. They were written to edify the London Metropolitan Police in 1830, but they might also have improved police conduct in Cambridge, Mass.
Defenders of Sgt. James Crowley will argue that he behaved coolly while Gates went off, setting off a spiral that ended in arrest. Defenders of Gates will argue that a police officer confronted Gates in his own home in a suspicious and authoritarian manner.
My hunch is that this was a confrontation between two strong-willed men from entirely different worlds, each of whom is accustomed to a great deal of deference on the job. My other hunch is that this was a confrontation that did not need to end in an arrest.
In the end, professors are paid to be knowledgeable and smart. Policemen are paid to be cool in a crisis.
In the words that Lisa found in London, police were admonished that "a Constable who allows himself to be irritated by any language whatsoever shows that he has not that command of his temper which is absolutely necessary in an officer vested with such extensive powers by the law."
Police officers would do well to remember those words today.