Friday, July 24, 2009

Be Green. Forget Race: Consider Police, Gates & Customer Service

If you’re puzzled by the fallout from the conflict involving Harvard Professor Gates and the Cambridge police, forget about race, politics and racial-profiling. Instead, view the situation as if it were a business or shopping scenario. Forget about black-and-white issues. Let's be green* --as in money.

Be honest: What would happen if you were mistakenly accused of shoplifting in a grocery store? Bottom line: The store would apologize. Here's why:

Consider this scenario: You are shopping at a grocery store. A fellow customer suspects you of shoplifting and reports those allegations to store security.

The situation looks suspicious. You have been spotted cramming food packages into a bag. It looks bad.

The reality: Prior to arriving at the store, you had purchased items at another store. In the second store, you were comparing ingredients to make sure your new purchases will match the other items.

Bottom line: The situation looks suspect, but you have a valid explanation.

Security officer: Doing his or her job, the officer confronts and arrests you. Eventually, the situation is resolved when you produce receipts and match the “suspected merchandise” with the legitimate documentation.

The fallout: In the meantime, tense words are exchanged. Both sides – the customer and store security – get belligerent and angry. It’s not pretty. We won't even talk about race. Let's stay green.

The smart Customer Relations strategy: However, at this point, either the store manager or the security officer realizes that a serious mistake launched the entire scenario. As the well-meaning, but misdirected agent of the mistake, it’s the store’s obligation to diffuse the situation. That was not done in Cambridge.

The Green Solution: The customer has been wrongly accused. In a savvy mode, the store apologizes. The officer apologizes. The wrongly accused accepts the apology and apologizes for the subsequent belligerent tone.

Everyone moves on. And that’s what happens when you remove race from the situation.

The Cambridge Police made a mistake. We all make mistakes. For the police, there’s a civic obligation to acknowledge that a mistake – however well-intended -- occurred.

It’s not (just) about race.* It’s about good customer service.

*Edited to add: It's not JUST about race. The above scenario was created to show that even if we remove the racial element from the story, the Cambridge Police Department erred.
News Roundup:

Sharon is the author of the Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money -- a coming of age memoir about money -- and a contributing writer in Wise Bread's 10,0001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.


Kara said...

I can't agree.

Add another layer to your scenario. Imagine that this incident takes place at an upscale supermarket in a primarily white part of town. You - the person doing the shopping - are black.

You were arrested before being given the chance to show your coupon and explain the situation. The question has to be asked, would the same type of treatment been given to a white shopper displaying the same behavior? Would the white shopper have been given the chance to explain and present the coupon BEFORE the arrest took place, rather than after?

Unfortunately it *is* about race and to deny that is to intentionally put your head in the sand.

(And btw, I'm white. I still think what happened was about race and was appalling.)

Frugal Duchess said...


You raise good points, but my point is this:

Even if we factor out the race equation (which is significant), the Cambridge Police Department has not done the right thing.

Thanks for writing!

Val said...

Very interesting post. I don't think there is any denying it is about race, but I really like the way you analyze it from another angle.

ddadmin said...

Wow!! I never thought that this will be such a big news. It went from Gates arrest to Obama apalogy. This has become more interesting than what I thought. So, I collected all the sites or articles (more than 250 sites or articles) related to this hot topic "Cambridge Police Unit Demands Apology from Obama". If you are interested take a look at news, video coverage, people views and reviews on this topic at the below link.

Joseph Karl Grant said...

This is an interesting scenerio you paint. As an African American law professor similar events have happened to me personally regarding law enforcement officials. While practicing corporate law a decade ago, I vividly remember a white suburban police officer stopping me in the driveway of my own house late one night after arriving home from the office. "What are you doing in this neighborhood?" I guess I looked like I didn't belong to him. I could have been outraged like Professor Gates, and most other normal people in a similar situation, and landed in jail. I grew up with a keen sense of African American male and police officer protocol: I kept my cool.

In Professor Gates' situation, I don't believe that we can gloss over the racial dynamics, class, and other issues perhaps involved. We are not living in a post-racial society as some would have us believe.

I agree that a huge mistake was made. Professor Gates is a great scholar, and has contributed a great deal to our society. A man so great should not have a mugshot and record of arrest that will live with him the rest of his life over such a silly incident!!! This situation didn't need to escalate to this level.

I couldn't agree with you more that the Cambridge PD needs to step-up and apologize to Professor Gates. I think the Cambridge PD is arrogant. Arrogance has blinded the Cambridge PD from doing what should be the right thing. Apologies can go a long if they are sincere and heartfelt.

In an ironic twist, Professor Gates' arrest sheds light on the indignity many African American males face in our society at the hands of law enforcement officials. Yes, racial profiling and stereotypes do exist and need to be confronted.

DSS said...

I disagree, I don't think it is about race and I think the officer was right in his actions. I see your scenario as not being completely accurate so for the sake of argument, let's look at it as if we're talking about neighboring stores and you are the responding officer.

1)There are two stores across the street from each other, one is a Safeway and the other is a Kroger.

2)It is after hours and the Safeway manager is working late. Seeing a light on in Kroger's, he suspects a burglary and calls the police.

3)You arrive at the scene, alone, and observe a male individual inside the store. The front door doesn't appear to have been tampered with but you are unsure of the back door.

4)In order to *safely* investigate the situation, you ask the individual to step out of the store (since there may be other people inside) so that you can check his identification and verify his presence.

5)Instead of the individual complying, he instead becomes belligerent and complains that you are harassing him because he owns Krogers and he knows you shop at Safeway. After repeated requests, he refuses to comply with your rational instructions and grows increasingly belligerent, all the while complaining that you are a Safeway supporter and you don't like Kroger.

Doesn't this sound absurd? In my view, this is exactly what happened.

All Gates had to do was step outside, show identification, and wait for verification. Gates escalated the situation by not complying with the police officer. Some folks would have you believe that the officer was patrolling the neighborhood and stopped of his own accord because he saw a black man standing in the doorway of a prestigious home. This is CLEARLY not the case as the officer was responding to a report of a burglary.

I'll be the first to point out an injustice but in my opinion, this is clearly not it.

FWIW, I'm a black police officer who loves to *safely* serve the public so that I may go home to my family at night. Cambridge PD followed sound police protocol by asking Gates to step out of a house (unknown space) and onto the porch/driveway (known space).

I unequivocally agree with the officer's actions in this case.

cherilynn said...

A very informative post!

Frugal Duchess said...

@ Val:
Thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate your kind words about the "green analysis."

Best Wishes,

Frugal Duchess said...


Thanks for stopping by! Thanks for your insights.

Like you, I'm amazed at how large the story has become.


kind regards,

Frugal Duchess said...

Joseph Karl Grant:

I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

Your law class must be engaging.
I agree with you: humility and heart-felt apologies can amend a situation that has spun out of control.

The drama also sheds light on important issues in our society.

Thanks again for writing.

Frugal Duchess said...


Thanks for taking the time and energy to share another view point.

I appreciate the time and attention that you gave to your comments.

I think we agree on this point:

Humility could have solved this problem on both sides of that Cambridge door.

There is an excellent story on the ABC News Web site, and it made a few basic points:

1) First amendment rights protect our freedom of speech in our own homes. We do not live in a police state.

2) Both men could have diffused the conflict.

3) The police officer -- as a public servant -- should have gotten back into his car and driven away rather than engage in a verbal battle.

There was no crime; just a horrible misunderstanding that could have been averted with humility on both sides.

Frugal Duchess said...


Thanks for stopping by! Thanks for leaving a comment.
Best Wishes,