WASHINGTON - - President Barack Obama backed off Friday from his contention that police acted "stupidly" in arresting a black Harvard University professor on disorderly conduct charges at his own home, hoping to tamp down an escalating racial dispute that has diverted attention from his policy agenda.
The president, making a rare, surprise visit to the White House press briefing room, conceded that he had chosen the wrong words in saying the Cambridge, Mass., police had blundered.
"This has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up," Obama said of the racial controversy. "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 and Sgt. [James] Crowley specifically. And I could've calibrated those words differently."
Obama also phoned both the arresting officer and the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., on Friday, inviting them to the White House to discuss the disagreement over a beer.
The president stopped short of apologizing for his remark about the police, which he had made at a prime-time news conference on Wednesday. But he said that in his conversation Friday with Crowley, he acknowledged that "I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically - and I could have calibrated those words differently." At his news conference Wednesday, Obama used stark language in blaming Cambridge police officers for an arrest that he said should never have happened. Over the next two days, he tempered his position, saying Gates might also have been at fault.
"I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station," Obama said. "I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well." What led Obama to this point began with the report of a break-in at Gates' home on July 16. Cambridge police arrived on the scene and questioned Gates, who had been locked out of his house after returning from a trip to China and was trying to force open a door.
In his police report, Crowley said the professor was "very uncooperative" and accused him of being a "racist police officer." For their part, Gates's supporters say he posed no threat and was treated with more suspicion because of his race. Gates was arrested on disorderly conduct charges, which were later dropped.
Obama's remarks came hours after a news conference held by Cambridge police union officials, who said the president must apologize. Crowley was there but didn't speak.
Without a full picture of what happened, Obama should have stayed out of the discussion, union officials said. Particularly hurtful was Obama's attempt to link the arrest to racial profiling by law enforcement, they said.
Sgt. Dennis O'Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said: "Whatever may be the history, the supervisors and the patrol officers of the Cambridge Police Department deeply resent the implication and reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case they have allowed a person's race to direct their activities."
Stephen Killion, president of the Cambridge police union, said, "I think the president should make an apology to all law enforcement personnel throughout the entire country who took offense to this."
The matter escalated Monday, when word broke that Gates, 58, had been arrested five days earlier at the two-story home he rents from Harvard.
Supporters including Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called the arrest an outrageous act of racial profiling. Public interest increased when a photograph surfaced of the handcuffed Gates being escorted off his porch amid three officers, two white and one black.
Cambridge police moved to drop the disorderly conduct charge Tuesday - without apology, but calling the case "regrettable."
That didn't end the debate: Some said Gates was responsible for his own arrest because of his response to Crowley, while others said Gates was justified.
Obama's criticism added fuel to the racial debate.
The backlash from police follows months of relatively smooth relations between the White House and law enforcement. The biggest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, did not endorse Obama in the 2008 election. Still, its leaders spoke in favor of Obama's nominations of Eric H. Holder to be attorney general and of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Also, police groups were pleased that Obama had directed billions of dollars in stimulus funds to policing.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he had been "taken aback" by Obama's criticism of the Cambridge police. "He had been pretty good to law enforcement," Pasco said.