BOSTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plunged his presidency into a charged racial debate and set off a firestorm with police officers nationwide by siding with a prominent black scholar who accuses police of racism.
Saying he was unaware of "all the facts" but that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "acted stupidly" in their arrest of Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Obama whipped up emotions on both sides of an issue that threatens to open old wounds.
"The President has alienated public safety officers across the country by his comments," said David Holway, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which represents 15,000 public security officials.
In a letter to Obama, he sought an apology. "You not only used poor judgment in your choice of words, you indicted all members of the Cambridge police department and public safety officers across the country."
Obama's comments, made at a news conference on Wednesday evening, marked his biggest foray into the hot-button issue of race since taking office in January and underline how racial issues remain very much alive despite advances embodied by his election as the first black U.S. president.
"Unfortunately, the racial divide is still there. It's still very raw. I think he was trying to let the majority of non-minority Americans have a sense of what it is like to a black or Latino," said Boston University professor of politics Thomas Whalen.
But many in Massachusetts said he crossed a line by passing judgment on police while acknowledging he did not have all the facts. Online polls in Massachusetts show strong support for the white arresting officer. A police union and his department's chief also came out strongly in his defense.
"Based on what I have seen and heard from the other officers, he maintained a professional decorum during the course of the entire situation," Cambridge Police Department Commissioner Robert Haas told a news conference.
Obama's comment stunned his policemen, Haas added. "They were very much deflated," he said. "It deeply hurts the pride of this agency." He is forming a panel to review the arrest.
Others questioned whether Obama should have so strongly backed Gates, a friend for many years, over the police without knowing fully what took place.
"He should steer clear of it if he doesn't know all the facts," said Patricia Lynch, 49, a consultant and graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, as she emerged from a Boston cafe. "For any specific case, you have to go only by the facts of that particular case."
Gates, 58, director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African & African American Research, is a potent cultural force, listed as one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Americans" in 1997 and friend of talk-show star Oprah Winfrey.
His arrest on the porch of his home on Thursday prompted a moment of national soul-searching, but the facts of the case are far from clear. Gates says the incident underlines the persistence of stereotyping, or racial profiling, even in liberal America.
Police say Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct, accusing him of being uncooperative, refusing to initially provide identification and "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior" by repeatedly shouting at a policeman in front of people gathered on the street in front of his house.
The incident began when a woman caller reported a man trying to force his way into a home. Gates said he was unable to enter his damaged front door after returning from a week in China. His home had been broken into while he was away, Haas said. Sgt. James Crowley arrived to investigate.
The charge was dropped on Tuesday but Gates is demanding an apology from Crowley, who has refused, saying he did nothing wrong. Gates has threatened to sue the police.
"I support the president to a point," Crowley, who taught a police academy class on racial profiling, said after Obama's comment. "I think it's disappointing that he waded into what should be a local issue," he added on WEEI radio.
Obama commented on the issue again on Thursday, telling ABC News he was "surprised by the controversy surrounding" his remark. "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's in his own home," Obama said.
"I think that I have extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do," Obama said. "And my suspicion is that words were exchanged between the police officer and Mr. Gates and that everybody should have just settled down and cooler heads should have prevailed. That's my suspicion."
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Erin Kutz, editing by Anthony Boadle