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Of his July 16 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department said: “I really didn't want to have to take such a drastic action because I knew it was going to bring a certain amount of attention, unwanted attention, on me. Nonetheless, that's how far professor Gates pushed it.”
TODAY contributor
updated 7/24/2009 4:12:03 PM ET 2009-07-24T20:12:03

The white police officer who was criticized by President Barack Obama for arresting a black Harvard professor outside his home has fired back at the president and other critics, refusing to apologize for his actions.

In an exclusive one-on-one interview with television station WHDH that TODAY aired Friday, Sgt. James Crowley, an 11-year veteran of the Cambridge Police Department, also said he was aware when he arrested professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. that it would be seen as controversial and bring unwanted attention on him. But, he insisted, Gates’ aggressive behavior left the officer with no choice.

“I really didn’t want to have to take such a drastic action because I knew it was going to bring a certain amount of attention, unwanted attention, on me. Nonetheless, that’s how far professor Gates pushed it and provoked and just wouldn’t stop,” Crowley said.

‘Deeply pained’
The incident happened on Thursday, July 16. On Wednesday, July 22, Obama was asked about it at his press conference regarding his efforts to pass a national health care plan. The president said that police acted “stupidly” in arresting the professor, who is a personal friend of Obama’s.

On Thursday, Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas said he was “deeply pained” by Obama’s comments and defended Crowley. On Friday, Crowley was present at a midday press conference called by police union officials to defend police conduct during the incident, but he did not speak or answer questions from press.

Gates, who is one of the nation’s leading scholars on race relations in America, has also jumped into the fray, offering a description of what happened that night that is widely at odds with the story told by Crowley and Cambridge police.

Video: Mass. police unions ask Obama for apology Gates had come home that night in a hired car after a prolonged absence and found he couldn’t get into his home. A neighbor called police to report a possible break-in at the house by two black men wearing backpacks.

Responding to the call, Crowley said he encountered Gates at his front door.

“I asked him if he would step outside and speak with me, and he said, ‘No, I will not,’ and again words to the effect of ‘What's this about?’ ” Crowley said. “And I said, ‘I’m Sergeant Crowley from the Cambridge Police Department. I’m investigating a break-in in progress.’ And he responded, ‘Why? Because I’m a black man in America?’ in a very agitated tone, and again I thought that was a little strange.”

Differing accounts
Gates is 5-foot-7 and navigates with the aid of a cane, and Crowley said he did not fit the profile of a burglar. “His appearance did lead me to believe maybe this wasn't your typical breaking-and-entering type person experience, however, that response from him was a little strange; uncommon in my experience,” Crowley said.

The officer said he asked Gates if there was another person in the residence because the call to police had mentioned two people. “I wasn’t expecting his response, which was ‘That’s none of your business.’ To me that’s a strange response for somebody that has nothing to hide,” Crowley said.

Image: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
B. Carter  /  AP
Henry Louis Gates Jr., center, was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on July 16.
After telling Gates several times that he was acting disorderly, the officer said he finally arrested him on disorderly conduct charges, which were later dropped.

“I was leaving as I reached the porch, and I was aware that now he was following me because he was still yelling about racism and black men in America, and that he wasn’t somebody to be messing with,” Crowley said in the interview, which initially aired on NBC affiliate WHDH in Boston.

Gates told CNN a totally different story.

“I said, ‘This is my house, I’m a Harvard professor. I live here,’ ” Gates said. “He said, ‘Can you prove it?’ I said, ‘Just a minute.’ And I turned my back, I walked into the kitchen to get my Harvard ID and my Massachusetts driver’s license. He followed me without permission. I gave him the 2 IDs and I demanded to know his name and badge number. He wouldn’t say anything. He was just very upset and I said, ‘Why are you not responding to me? Are you not responding to me because you’re a white officer and I’m a black man?’ ” Video: Cops bristle at Obama's remark

Gates said Crowley turned and walked outside onto the porch with the professor following. Outside, Gates said he found the porch filled with police officers. “It looked like a police convention, there were so many policemen outside,” Gates said. “I stepped out on my porch and said, ‘I want to know your colleague’s name and his badge number.’ This officer said, ‘Thank you for accommodating my earlier request. You are under arrest.’ ”

He said, he said
Gates called Crowley “a rogue policeman. Look how tumultuous I am. I am 5-foot-7 and weigh 150 pounds and my tumultuous, outrageous action was to demand that he give me his name and his badge number.”

Crowley said it wasn’t that way at all.

“He was the one that was being provocative,” the officer said. “This wasn’t a back-and-forth exchange of banter or arguing. This was one-sided. I was profusely telling him to calm down during this whole exchange because I really didn’t want this either.”

Crowley teaches a course on racial profiling to cadets and officers at the Cambridge Police Academy and insists he is not a racist. He said he didn’t expect President Obama to weigh in as emotionally as he did.

“I was a little surprised and disappointed that the president, who didn’t have all the facts by his own admission, then weighed in on the events of that night, and then made a comment that you know really offended not just the officers in the Cambridge Police Department, but officers around the country,” Crowley said.

The officer added, “I have tremendous amount of respect and support the president of the United States and everything that he’s trying to do in this day and age, so I think it’s disappointing.”

Obama responds
As the controversy grew, Obama refused to back down, though some of his aides have tried their best to diminish it.

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“I have to say I’m surprised by the controversy surrounding my statement, because I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don’t need to handcuff a guy — a middle-aged man who uses a cane who was in his own home,” Obama said in an ABC News interview Thursday night.

On Friday said he made a poor choice of words when he said Cambridge police officers "acted stupidly" but stopped short of apologizing for the remark.

The president said race continues to be a sensitive issue and he hopes the incident becomes "a teachable moment."

In a brief foray into the White House briefing room, Obama told reporters he continues to believe that there was an "overreaction'' by police in arresting Gates and added that Gates "probably overreacted as well."

The president said he called Sgt. Crowley and believes him to be an outstanding officer.

"I want to 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," the president said.  "I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley."

Obama added: "My hope 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.”

He said it was "unfortunate" that his choice of words "didn't illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy."

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Cambridge officer: Gates ‘provocative’


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