Jacob Sullum

A few minutes into the police encounter that ended with his arrest for disorderly conduct, Henry Louis Gates Jr. reportedly exclaimed, "This is what happens to black men in America!" It would be more accurate to say this is what can happen to anyone who makes the mistake of annoying a cop.

Whether or not race played a role in the incident, Cambridge police Sgt. James Crowley clearly abused his authority, retaliating against the Harvard professor for his disrespect by hauling him away in handcuffs. The highly publicized arrest illustrates the threat posed by vague laws that give too much discretion to police officers who conflate their own personal dignity with public safety.

Crowley, responding to a report of a possible burglary in progress from a woman who saw Gates forcing open a jammed door to his house, quickly realized he was not dealing with a break-in. Gates explained that he lived in the house, which he leases from Harvard, and supplied a university ID confirming that he was a member of the faculty. Gates says he became angry because Crowley nevertheless continued to question him.

Even if we accept Crowley's version of events, the arrest was not justified (a conclusion reinforced by the city's decision to drop the charge). Let's say Gates did initially refuse to show his ID -- an understandable response from an innocent man confronted by police in his own home. Let's say he immediately accused Crowley of racism and behaved in a "loud and tumultuous" fashion. So what? By Crowley's own account, he arrested Gates for dissing him. That's not a crime, or at least it shouldn't be.

In Massachusetts, as in many states, the definition of disorderly conduct is drawn from the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code. A person is considered disorderly if he "engages in fighting or threatening, violent or tumultuous behavior … with purpose to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm" or "recklessly creates a risk thereof."

Crowley claims Gates recklessly created public alarm by haranguing him from the porch of his house, attracting a small crowd that included "at least seven unidentified passers-by" as well as several police officers. Yet it was Crowley who suggested that Gates follow him outside, thereby setting him up for the disorderly conduct charge.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Crowley was angered and embarrassed by Gates' "outburst" and therefore sought to create a pretext for arresting him. "When he has the uniform on," Crowley's wife later told The New York Times, "Jim has an expectation of deference."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Jacob Sullum's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.
©Creators Syndicate