Local leaders respond to arrest, Obama's remarks

Associated Press
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show 'Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2,' this past Wednesday.

While the controversy over the arrest last week of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a white police officer has raised the issue of racial profiling across the nation, state and local officials were restrained Thursday when talking about the incident.

But they showed less restraint when it came to their feelings on President Obama's remarks that the Cambridge, Mass., police acted "stupidly" in their handling of Mr. Gates' arrest.

"If you don't know all the facts, I think that statement was unwarranted and definitely one-sided," said Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength, who said he preferred not to comment on the incident because he had not read the officer's report and did not know all the details of the case.

The president, who admitted he was a close friend of Mr. Gates before making the statement, was responding to a reporter's question about the arrest during a prime-time news conference on health care reform.

Mr. Gates was arrested outside his home July 16 after an argument with a Cambridge police officer. Mr. Gates and a taxi driver were attempting to pry open his front door, which was stuck. According to the police report, a woman called police after she saw two black men trying to force their way into the home.

Accounts of what happened differ. It appears there was a disagreement between the officer and Mr. Gates that led to the professor's arrest on a disorderly conduct charge.

Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the law enforcement officials he had spoken with had mostly negative comments about the president's remarks.

"I've been in law enforcement 40 years, and I'm personally dismayed that an intelligent individual that serves as our country's chief administrator would say such a damning thing about a professional law enforcement unit," said Mr. Rotondo, whose group includes the leaders of 572 law enforcement agencies.

He said the incident was a "no-win" situation for the police department and the sergeant.

Charles Smith, the president of the Augusta Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that, based on media reports of the incident, he wondered whether it was necessary to arrest Mr. Gates if he had shown the deputy his ID and it was clear he lived in the house.

He said racial stereotyping was a concern across the country and that people should work together to get to the truth.

"Lets just let the investigation go on and see what the conclusion would be," Dr. Smith said. "I think both sides should apologize and move on for the betterment of America -- to unify America. But these type things definitely need to be looked into, and it should not happen."

Racial sensitivity training is a part of every deputy's training in Richmond County, sheriff's Col. Gary Powell said.

In an eight-hour block during basic training, deputies are taught to treat everyone "like you would want a member of your family to be treated," Col. Powell said.

Deputies must also complete a refresher course on racial sensitivity each year.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

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