Harvard scholar versus Cambridge police
Aug 04, 2009
by Lisa Rea
Most of us have heard all about the police incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard Square. A Harvard scholar by the name of Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home after a neighbor called the police concerned someone was breaking into the house. This occurred at 12:30pm after Gates had just returned to his home from an international flight to China.
What ensued from this point on is what many of us are talking about in the U.S. The arresting Cambridge police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, attempted to investigate the possible break-in. Much is not clear regarding who said what and how. But what is clear is that race in America and how law enforcement treats those individuals who are under suspicion is real. And it's something we must discuss.
The accompanying link from National Public Radio is a interesting commentary worth listening to.
No matter how you view this incident, or whose side you're on if you have taken sides, the reality is that we have a problem. It's not a new problem. It's been around a very long time. But it is troubling. Is it all about racial profiling, which is what we call it now in the U.S.? The definition of racial profiling in my view is when law enforcement make assumptions about a potential suspect based on race. I would say this is not all about racial profiling. But it is certainly something that many people of color still very much fear.
What does this have to do with restorative justice? I think quite a bit. President Obama made a public comment about this case last week igniting a fire storm because of it. He said that the Cambridge Police had acted "stupidly" in its response to Henry Gates by arresting him after he had shown two sets of ID. No matter what you think of the president's comments, and his subsequent comments, saying in essence that he could have perhaps chosen a better word to describe what he thought., the president weighed in on a very real problem facing the U.S. criminal justice. That problem underscores the fact that our criminal justice system, which includes law enforcement, has a credibility problem. I would say, and many research surveys would back me up, that much of that distrust is coming out of communities of color. Do people of color have a reason to distrust the justice system? I would say they sure do. Are people of color often treated differently by the justice system? I don't think there is question that that is indeed the case. So where do we go from here?
The president in recent days reached out to both the officer and to the Harvard scholar. President Obama not only made contact but he has invited the two to join him at the White House for a chat, we're told.
I think that 's great. It might seem a little odd, but at the same time this is an explosive issue as we have learned in the last week. It's explosive and Obama is the first black president of the United States. I think his actions reflect the fact that he knows the current criminal justice system has flaws. But what Obama has done is introduce the idea of victim-offender dialogue. You might question which person plays which role, but regardless we have conflict here that has ramifications perhaps nationally. The president is right. Let's have a dialogue: a very simple and basic form of restorative justice includes bringing the two parties together to talk often with a trained mediator. This certainly is a different kind of mediator but I like the concept.
Could law enforcement and race relations between police departments and the public they are sworn to protect improve by better communications? I am sure it could. And it has in the U.S., depending where you live. We know that the concept of community policing is very much reflective of restorative justice principles encouraging better communication between law enforcement and community members. It also encourages more direct participation by community members in their local criminal justice system. Some cities need must more of this "hands-on" involvement that provides more transparency between those who have the power to protect, and arrest, and those who live in any given community. But most of us doing restorative justice would argue all communities need active involvement by community members. Doesn't matter where you live.
The fact remains though in the U.S. that race is a factor in arrests and convictions. You need only look at the numbers of those in our jails in prisons. They are disproportionately people of color.
Are some arrested and convicted because of the color of their skin? Yes. Have we at times convicted and sentenced a person for a crime he has not committed based on the color of his skin? I believe there is no doubt we have. I think that is what first stunned me by this case. I have had a hard time with this news story since it appeared and each day as more detail has emerged. It's hard to say who was right and who was wrong or if both parties are to blame. But I like the idea of examining how we administer justice in America and expanding our evaluation of the justice system to the community level. That takes you to law enforcement and how those who are first arrested, or interviewed, as possible suspects are treated.
I believe that we all need to be aware of assumptions we make, regarding guilt and innocence, based on racial identity. The expansion of the use of victim-offender dialogue is wise. If we used restorative justice processes to resolve conflicts, or attempt to, we would improve relations between people of color and law enforcement. But hopefully President Obama would not be needed as the mediator and the location of that first dialogue would not be the White House.