In the movie Love Story, Ryan O’Neal famously says that love means never having to say you’re sorry. That should not be the attitude of an authority figure, such as a doctor or a police officer. Yet institutions and individuals in those roles remain reluctant to apologize when their actions, however justified, have adverse outcomes.
It is partly fear of litigation that causes many individuals and institutions to avoid expressions of regret in such situations. To address that concern, Virginia passed a law in 2007 allowing doctors and hospitals to apologize to patients injured by medical errors without having the statements used against them in court.
But far from providing fodder for lawsuits, apologies tend to dissuade aggrieved parties from pursuing civil action. For example, Medical News Today reported in March that some New Jersey hospitals had seen lawsuits drop after they switched from a “deny and defend” policy to providing patients formal apologies, with monetary compensation only offered as deemed justified.
Fear of litigation isn’t the only factor, however. Emotions make us all hate to apologize, especially when we believe we acted correctly. That’s perhaps why Sergeant James Crowley said that he would not apologize to Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. for the July incident that resulted in Gates’ arrest for disorderly conduct. (The charges were dismissed by the Cambridge Police Department, which did apologize.)
“Gates had just arrived home to his Cambridge house from a trip abroad to find his front door stuck shut,” reported the Boston Globe. A passerby saw him and his driver forcing the door and called 911. But the audio of the 911 call, which was made public, reveals that the caller also said she saw suitcases, and she cautioned that it might just be the homeowner. Crowley arrived to find Gates in his home already and asked him for identification. At that point, according to Crowley, Gates was uncooperative and verbally confrontational, for which Crowley arrested him.
Gates disputed the charge of belligerence, but whether he was verbally abusive isn’t really the point. Consider an incident in 2007, when, according to a Star Tribune report, the Minneapolis police wrongly entered the home of a man named Vang Khang. Khang responded by shooting two of the officers. He did not yell at them, he shot them. Rather than arrest the homeowner, the police apologized. They recognized that the homeowner’s behavior was an understandable response under pressure.
Crowley was doing his job when he responded to the 911 call. Unfortunately, once it became clear that no crime was in progress, he chose to arrest an innocent homeowner for losing his cool rather than apologizing for the distress that the mistaken report had caused him.
It’s not just minorities who should be troubled by that type of arrest. The powers police hold should be wielded far more gingerly than that in a democracy.