WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The recent outrage in response to the Cambridge Police Department's arrest of prominent Harvard Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates was not the first time that the Cambridge Police Department was nationally embarrassed amidst a racial incident.
Ten years ago, the Cambridge Police commissioner and mayor issued a public apology after a story by this reporter exposed racially offensive teachings and language by Cambridge police officers during an interview about the use of pepper spray.
Though a decade has passed, last week's incident in which Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct in his own home was a stark reminder of the ugliness of racial stereotyping and profiling in Cambridge and across the country. It also reminded America of the longevity of friction between police and people of color.
"It's a national problem and we haven't been able to really control it in a rational way," says Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree in an NNPA interview. He said he is glad the incident has sparked a national discussion that began in Cambridge but could have far-reaching and long-term ramifications.
Gates was arrested on his front porch by Sgt. James Crowley even after he showed his Harvard I.D. and driver's license to the officer who was investigating what neighbors apparently thought was a burglary. It was actually Gates and his driver trying to get into his front door, which was stuck. The charges were dropped against Gates, who became irate during the heated confrontation. He was handcuffed, arrested and held for four hours.
The incident brought back memories.
A headline on the website of this week's Cambridge Chronicle reminds, "Not the first time Cambridge Police Department faced with race allegations."
It was early August 1999. A group of White Cambridge police officers – including a use of force trainer - sat around a desk inside the police department talking to this reporter.
They were confident and boisterous in the taped interview as they told how their police academy trained their officers that Mexicans and other people who may have grown up eating or working with a lot of cayenne peppers were immune to the affects of pepper spray.
''The people that it doesn't affect are people who have consumed cayenne peppers from the time they are small children, and this generally breaks into ethnic categories," Officer Frank Gutoski, a trainer in the academy, told this reporter, who at that time was working a summer job for the Cambridge Chronicle.
"Every year, I teach this," Gutoski was quoted in the Aug. 19, 1999 story headlined, "Pepper Spray Theory Stings Some Minorities."
He named Mexican-Americans, Pakistani Indian and Cajuns as examples of people who are more likely tolerant to the chemical-like spray that causes intense burning in the eyes and face and closing of air passages. Two other officers in the room excitedly agreed during the openly taped interview.
Emergency room doctors gasped at the police theory: ''This is absolutely not true,'' said Dr. Michael Burns, emergency medicine attending physician and medical toxicologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. ''Most police have no medical background and there is absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever to support this.''
The story was picked up by news mediums around the country, including the Boston Globe, which reported that "Many doctors and law enforcement specialists say it sounds crazy."
Amidst community outrage and embarrassment, Cambridge police and city leaders immediately issued a public apology for the racially offensive and medically unfounded statements.
''It is unfortunate that these comments were made," said then Cambridge Police Commissioner Ronnie Watson. ''There is no empirical or scientific evidence to support these statements."
Then Mayor Francis H. Duehay said, ''It is inconceivable in this day and age that the training program for police officers in Cambridge would contain information which has no scientific basis and slanders the Latino community … I apologize for the misinformation about pepper spray which has been communicated and for the ethnic slur it contains.''
In the Gates incident, there were no such apologies forthcoming. Police stood firmly behind Crowley who insisted he was correct in his actions despite public outrage.
The Chronicle recounted the 1999 incident after even President Obama weighed in on the Gates arrest. In a nationally televised press conference July 22, Obama said the police department "acted stupidly" in the arrest. But, he later softened the criticism, saying he did not mean to disparage Sgt. Crowley or the department and invited the officer and Gates to the White House for a beer.
Ogletree, executive director of Harvard's Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice, hopes the conversations will go much further than that. Civil rights advocates have long fought to end racial profiling. He says this incident could rejuvenate that cause.
A 1994 book that he helped produce with the national NAACP examined what happened with the video-taped 1993 Rodney King beatings and what could be learned.
The book, "Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities," laid out a series of investigations that had recommendations.
They included the need for community policing, culturally sensitive policing, more diversity in police forces around the country and the need to make sure there was continuous police training on meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse community.
"Those recommendations in 1994 are eerily necessary in 2009 as a result of the incident that sparked the debate on July 16," he said.
Currently, Ogletree says plans are underway to bring together diverse segments of the Cambridge community to discuss issues that led to the blow up and how to avoid them in the future.
But that's just one city. "The national effort will take much longer," he said. But there is hope as he is getting emails and texts from people of every race, gender and class ''who are accounting their own experiences and wanting profiling to end," he said.
"The fact that people are willing to talk about it, willing to meet about it, to move from their strongly held views to some alternative possibilities is a real strength. And that makes me exceedingly optimistic that we will be able to resolve this in an important way.