I have spent over twenty years teaching courses on “The History of Crime” and have been pleased to have many members of the police force as my students. I have the highest respect for those who risk their lives to serve the public, but, one thing has become clear to me after 53 years of teaching over 15,000 students. We all make mistakes. I am certain Sgt. Crowley is an excellent police officer, but he blew it this time by over-reacting. I begin from the premise that anyone who interacts with the public is prone to making errors of judgment. I assume that among my thousands of interactions with students I allow my emotions, my prejudices and experiences to get in the way of my normal sense of objectivity. I am human. This means I must have made at least two hundred mistakes in my life as a teacher.
Yes, those who work with the public, on occasion, allow emotions to get in the way. For example this past semester on nine occasions I contacted a student after class and apologized for being too curt in class, for making a grading mistake or for not grasping the point they made in class. I have worked with over 2,000 student teachers and the first lesson they learn is whenever there is a disturbance, restore order, don’t make threats, and above all, don’t send anyone to the principal’s office until you have had a chance to deal in a calm manner with the situation. I assure those of you who have never taught, that any normal, honest teacher can recount hundreds of times when it was necessary to bite one’s tongue, to be overly pleasant and to ignore rudeness and insults because acting in anger only created more problems.
I contacted a former student and asked for his opinion on the Gates situation.(I can not reveal his name). He responded by saying his initial focus is to restore calm to a situation., He refused to judge Crowley, but said if he had responded to the burglary call, his first comment to Gates would have been: “Sir, we have a report of a burglary. Are you OK? Is there anything I could do for you?” He said when the door is opened by an elderly man, you assume he will be upset and distraught because he is frightened and confused so get him sitting down, get him water to reduce his anxiety. My former student said words to this effect: “professor, I work in St. Louis which is mainly African American. If I entered a home where a black elderly man said he was a professor from Washington University, the first picture in my mind is to get things calm or I will wind up on the front page of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. I have a family, I attend night school, I don’t have time for filling out papers and getting into a mess.” He said he next would have asked Gates if he wanted him to contact Harvard or get a neighbor or family member over to the house to help him. Then, he would have apologized for any inconvenience, given his name and told Gates if he needed any further assistance to contact him.
Everyone in the public eye has made the Crowley mistake, we allowed our emotions to get the upper hand and lost sight of what we all desire –peace and calm in our lives and no shouting and screaming. I recently received an email from students I taught in 1959 and one said she could never forget how sometimes when the lesson was going poorly, I would stop, apologize to the class for my failure as a teacher and promise to do better the next day.
An article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch quotes a detective from Queens: “If you locked up everybody that was technically disorderly – you’ve got to know which battles to fight.” Wise words. That is my mantra to new teachers, keep it cool, keep it calm, but know when you have to take a stand. An elderly man who is distraught at an incorrect burglary claim is not the place to take any stand. Just say you are sorry and get on with your life if you have a brain in your policeman’s head.
I find fascinating how many have rushed to the defense of Sgt. Crowley. I assume when they are stopped by the police for not coming to a complete stop at a Stop Sign or pulled over for speeding, the first words out of their mouth is to thank the police. I’m normal. I grit my teeth and mutter curses under by breath. As NY State Senator Eric Adams, a retired New York City policeman, commented: “If it’s their house, they’re allowed to call you all sorts of names. A man’s house is his castle.”
You blew it Sgt. Crowley, but don’t worry, at least you are human.