Cambridge incident 'surprises' Atlantan who knows both men

Atlanta’s Cristina Beamud knows both the policeman and the professor whose heated encounter in Cambridge, Mass. ignited the most recent firestorm on race relations in America — a fire that President Obama admitted he unwittingly fanned.

“My take on it is both of these men (Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley) got into a difficult situation and it went downhill,” said Beamud, executive director of the city’s Citizen Review Board, a police oversight committee. “Neither are used to being challenged and they responded accordingly.”

Gates was arrested in his own home near Harvard University on July 16. Officers responded to Gates’ home after a woman called 911 about a possible daylight burglary.

Gates, a reknowned African American scholar, has said he returned from an overseas trip, found the door jammed, and that he and his driver attempted to force it open. Gates was inside the house when police arrived.

Police said he flew into a verbal rage after Crowley, who is white, asked him to show identification to prove he should be in the home. Police say Gates accused Crowley of racial bias, refused to calm down.

The initial outcome was Crowley arresting Gates for disorderly conduct, a charge that was quickly dropped. The interim reaction was discourse, pro and con, on the relationship between police and minorities. It escalated when Obama, during an hour-long press conference Wednesday on healthcare, spent about two minutes on the Gates-Crowley affair, ultimately saying police acted “stupidly.”

Beamud, who, prior to moving to Atlanta in November 2008, worked from 1996 to 2006 as a legal advisor for the Cambridge police department, hopes the incident will lead to more positive steps along the nation’s long road to racial reconciliation.

Beamud said she was surprised to hear of the incident in her former city.

“I have worked in a few police departments in my life and Cambridge is a very enlightened one,” she said. “I am surprised that out of all the police departments in the country, this has fallen on them. It is truly an injustice.”

Beamud knows both of the men very well. In addition to having worked with Sgt. James Crowley, her 27-year-old daughter was a classmate of Gates’ daughter. The two parents would talk while attending many parental functions together.

As legal advisor to Cambridge, she said she was mostly the bearer of bad news. She was used to people responding angrily. However, Crowley never did.

“Jim is a decent, kind, good person,” she said.

She thinks President Obama got it right to talk a lot about the state of policing and minority relations.

“These type of incidents inspire these type of responses,” she said. “While we have an African American president, it has not made as much of an impact as we would like to believe. There is an important lesson to be learned.”

Obama on Friday backed away from his “stupid” remark, calling it an unfortunate use of words. He called Gates and Crowley, praised the officer and the Cambridge police department and invited both men to join him for a beer at the White House.

That olive branch seemed to cool feelings from both sides, as well as observers from afar.

“While I have not seen the apology, I am pleased that there was one given,” Frank V. Rotondo, executive director, Georgia Police Chiefs Association.

“I do hope that Sgt. Crowley and President Obama are able to put this behind us, as well as Gates, and come to some resolution,” said Jorge [George] Mestre, a police officer with 19 years experience and president of the Cobb County chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“I was personally offended that the President would put all of us into a group as racial profilers. I still believe the President owes all police officers an apology and to some extent still owes an apology to Crowley. At the end of the day, there are more important things going on, like the killing of an officer in California, that I would like to see in the media over something like this that is so trivial.”

The Gates-Crowley incident could be the beginning for a better conversation, Beamud said. That discussion should include how do we police our communities, how do police exercise their discretion and when making enforcement decisions what will the impact be on members of our minority communities.

She describes Gates’ arrest as a discretionary arrest, adding that most discretionary arrests disproportionately impact African Americans.

“There could have been a different outcome from this situation,” she said.

Staff writer Rhonda Cook contributed to this report.