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Obama: Sgt. Crowley 'outstanding police officer and good man' (full text)

July 24, 2009 | 12:58 pm

(UPDATE: An update on the president's phone call today with Gates has been added at the end of this item. And we've added a C-SPAN video below of the president's remarks today to reporters on the incident.)

President Obama, his agenda overtaken and his reputation for racial healing strained by comments he made about the arrest of Harvard black studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., today walked it back.

During a press conference, Wednesday night Obama said that even without knowing all the facts it was clear the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates in his own home and that the case was evidence of the continuing racial profiling by police officers against African-American and Latino males.

Ever since, Sgt. James Crowley, who is white and teaches a class on the dangers of racial profiling at Lowell Police Academy, has defended himself, saying he was disappointed in his president, and noting that he had repeatedly warned Gates to calm down or he would be arrested.

As the controversy continued to swirl, the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association called on Obama to apologize for remarks they said were “misdirected” and left the implication that race was a factor in the arrest.

Today Obama, whose mother was white and father was African, confessed that his answer "had helped contribute" to ratcheting up the controversy, and he telephoned Crowley, telling the officer and reporters that the sergeant was "an outstanding police officer and a good man."

Taking the podium at the top of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' daily briefing, Obama made a statement about the incident, saying he still thinks it was an over-reaction to arrest Gates in his own home and hopes the incident will become a teachable moment for....

... the nation on the history of district between minorities and police officers.

But Obama also acknowledged that "in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically -- and I could have calibrated those words differently."

Read the full statement below.

-- Johanna Neuman

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STATEMENT BY THE PRESIDENT,James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

THE PRESIDENT:  Hey, it's a cameo appearance. Sit down, sit down. I need to help Gibbs out a little bit here.

Q    Are you the new press secretary?

THE PRESIDENT: If you got to do a job, do it yourself. (Laughter.) I wanted to address you guys directly because over the last day and a half obviously there's been all sorts of controversy around the incident that happened in Cambridge with Professor Gates and the police department there.

I actually just had a conversation with Sergeant Jim Crowley, the officer involved. And I have to tell you that as I said yesterday, my impression of him was that he was a outstanding police officer and a good man, and that was confirmed in the phone conversation -- and I told him that.

And because this has been ratcheting up -- and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up -- I want.... make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically -- and I could have calibrated those words differently.  And I told this to Sergeant Crowley.

I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station.  I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.  My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved.

The fact that it has garnered so much attention I think is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America.  So to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.

What I'd like to do then I make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts -- but as I said at the press conference, be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues.  And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.

My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what's called a "teachable moment," where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.  Lord knows we need it right now -- because over the last two days as we've discussed this issue, I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care.  (Laughter.)

I will not use this time to spend more words on health care, although I can't guarantee that that will be true next week.  I just wanted to emphasize that -- one last point I guess I would make.  There are some who say that as President I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because it's a local issue.  I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with.  The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society.  Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive -- as opposed to negative -- understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.

So at the end of the conversation there was a discussion about -- my conversation with Sergeant Crowley, there was discussion about he and I and Professor Gates having a beer here in the White House.  We don't know if that's scheduled yet -- (laughter) -- but we may put that together.

He also did say he wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn.  (Laughter.)  I informed him that I can't get the press off my lawn.  (Laughter.)  He pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn.  (Laughter.)  But if anybody has any connections to the Boston press, as well as national press, Sergeant Crowley would be happy for you to stop trampling his grass. All right.  Thank you, guys.   ###

(UPDATE: 2:44 p.m. Here's how the White House described the president's phone call today with Gates:

Readout of the President’s Phone Call with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The President called and connected with Professor Gates at 3:15 this afternoon.  They had a positive discussion during which the President told Gates about his call with Sgt. Crowley and statement to the media.  The President also invited Gates to join him with Sgt. Crowley at the White House in the near future.   ###

Presidential video courtesy of C-SPAN