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Police Release Gates' 911 Tape

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

There's more on the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. story today, and it comes via audiotape. The Cambridge police today released the 911 calls about a possible break-in at Gates' home more than a week ago. The police hope the move would ease suspicions about their handling of the matter, which ended with the arrest of Gates for disorderly conduct. The charges were dropped.

But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the debate goes on.

TOVIA SMITH: It turns out to be a pretty anti-climatic conversation for the call that was heard around the world.

(Soundbite of 911 call)

Unidentified Man #1: 911, (unintelligible) what's the exact location of your emergency?

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi. I'm actually in (unintelligible) Street in Cambridge and the house number is 17.

SMITH: While some news reports have cited a white woman reporting two black men, it was actually a woman of Portuguese descent who did not initially mention race when she told police she saw, quote, "Two gentlemen barging their way into the front door of a house."

(Soundbite of 911 call)

Unidentified Woman #1: I don't know if they live there and they just had a hard time with their key, but I did notice that they kind of used their shoulder to try to barge in and they got in.

SMITH: The dispatcher asked if the men were still in the house and then for a description.

(Soundbite of 911 call)

Unidentified Man #1: Are they white, black or Hispanic?

Unidentified Woman #1: Well, they were two larger men, one looks kind of Hispanic, but I'm not really sure. And the other one entered and I didn't see what he looked like at all.

Unidentified Woman #2: Respond to 17 Ware Street for a possible B&E in progress.

SMITH: A police dispatcher then put out a call about a possible breaking and entering in progress. And just about a minute after Sergeant James Crowley arrived, you can hear him report back that an elderly gentleman at the house was, quote, "uncooperative."

(Soundbite of recording)

Sergeant JAMES CROWLEY (Cambridge Police Department, Massachusetts): I'm up with a gentleman who says he resides here, but was uncooperative, but keep the cars coming.

Unidentified Man #2: Copy.

SMITH: Then Crowley calmly asks for backup and a moment later he reports that the man in the house has shown ID.

(Soundbite of recording)

Sgt. CROWLEY: I have an ID of a Henry Louis Gates.

SMITH: You can hear a loud voice behind the officer, but it's unclear if it's Gates.

(Soundbite of recording)

Sgt. CROWLEY: I'm giving you the name of the resident, a Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Private property.

SMITH: In the police report of the incident, Crowley says Gates was yelling from the moment the officers arrived, repeatedly accusing them of racism. Gates disputes that account, but neither side would comment today on the tapes.

Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas says only that the tapes speak for themselves. And without getting specific, he said he has already drawn some lessons from the case.

Mr. ROBERT HAAS (Commissioner, Cambridge Police Department): All of us, including myself, when we go through a situation, will always reassess what we did. And always, the first question I ask myself is, if I had to do it over again, what would I have done differently?

SMITH: But to some who heard them, the 911 tapes only raise more questions than they answer.

Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, executive director of the Center on Race Crime and Justice at John Jay College, says the fact that the case ended with an arrest says less about what happened than it does about the charge of disorderly conduct.

Dr. DELORES JONES-BROWN (Executive Director, Center on Race Crime and Justice, John Jay College): It is as broad as broad can possibly be. It's so subjective. It's a if-I-feel-like-giving-you-this-charge, I can.

SMITH: Cambridge authorities have put together a panel of experts to study all policies and procedures in place. But even in retrospect with calmer heads prevailing, Jones-Brown says it may be difficult to draw broad conclusions from this case.

Dr. JONES-BROWN: Even when we have atrocious situation, we cannot reach a consensus on whether or not that was unjustified police behavior. And so something far more subtle as this is certainly going to be difficult to reach any kind of consensus.

SMITH: Cambridge officials hoped today would be a turning point when people would begin to move on. But with Professor Gates and Officer Crowley due to meet together with President Obama and with documentaries about the case and public forums in the works, even as tempers die down, the conversation continues.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.