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911 Tapes Released, Race Not Mentioned

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Police tapes connected to Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Juniors arrest have raised more questions about the incident. Authorities in Cambridge, Massachusetts released the tapes yesterday hoping to reduce suspicion about police behavior. That was the hope. NPRs Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: The police tapes were a bust to anyone hoping theyd settle once and for all whether Professor Gates really was disorderly or whether the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley, really did overreact to what started as a low-key call to 911 about two guys maybe forcing their way into a house.

Ms. LUCIA WHALEN: 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.

SMITH: Contrary to many reports, the caller Lucia Whalen actually didn't mention race at all until she was asked.

Unidentified Man: Are they white, black or Hispanic?

Ms. WHALEN: Well, there were two larger men. One looked kind of Hispanic, but Im not really sure, and the other one entered and I didn't see what he looked like at all.

SMITH: When police broadcast a possible burglary in progress they still don't mention a black man. Sergeant Crowley says the caller told him at the house the men were black, but she denies it. About a minute after he gets there Crowley reports trouble brewing.

Sergeant JAMES CROWLEY (Cambridge Police Department): (Unintelligible) gentleman says he resides here (unintelligible) uncooperative. But keep the cars coming.

SMITH: A moment later you can hear a loud voice behind Sergeant Crowley, but its unclear if its Gates.

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

SMITH: Crowley says Gates was angrily accusing him of racism from the moment he arrived. Gates disputes that account and the tapes don't really help.

Dr. DELORES JONES BROWN (Director, Center on Race, Crime and Justice): We don't get very far, because we hear what we want to and we don't hear what we don't want to. And we simply make up the rest.

SMITH: Delores Jones Brown is director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. To her the tapes suggest the police overreacted. Theres no evidence of disorderly conduct, she says, and she questions why police didn't just leave the house after checking Gates ID and why the 911 operator asked about race at all.

Ms. BROWN: It does, in fact, alert me to the possibility that the Cambridge police have an issue with racial ethnic identity.

SMITH: But to others the tapes only show those accusations are unfounded.

Reverend EUGENE RIVERS (Co-director, National Ten Point Leadership Foundation): Racial profiling is a problem. But racial profiling is not what happened in the case of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

SMITH: Reverend Eugene Rivers, whos protested racial profiling in the past, says in this case the tapes prove that rhetoric got ahead of reality.

Reverend RIVERS: That is too loaded an accusation to be thrown around like rice at a wedding. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

SMITH: Rivers says he worries about the damage done by Gates Gate, as some have called it. It may be that the new focus on the issue and President Obamas meeting with both sides this week can help ease racial tensions, but Rivers says they will begin a few steps back from where we were two weeks ago.

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.