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How Cambridge police stared down a president

The police union's combative press conference Friday was an example of how the profession closes ranks in times of trouble.

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Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley (l.) attends news conference with representatives of various police unions in Cambridge, Mass., Friday. The unions expressed their support for Crowley, who has been criticized for arresting Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. on disorderly conduct charges on July 16.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

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Mere hours after the police union of Cambridge, Mass., brazenly demanded an apology from the president of the United States, it – in essence – got it.

While President Obama's unscheduled appearance at a routine White House press conference was not an explicit apology, Mr. Obama acknowledged that he now regretted his choice of words in a Wednesday night press conference. He had said that Sgt. James Crowley "acted stupidly" for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own front porch.

With his comments Friday – including his promise to bring Crowley and Professor Gates to the White House for an informal get-together – Obama went some way toward removing the damage his earlier comment made. Many police officers and experts said the comment had driven a wedge into what had been a collegial relationship between the White House and police.

But the union's hard line – successfully staring down a president – is a window into the so-called Thin Blue Line – the "Band of Brothers" mentality that draws police departments closer in times of crisis.

It is a product of the nature of policing, with officers relying on each other, in some cases, to protect their own lives. But, to some experts, the attitude also highlights a "bunker mentality" that can stymie community relations and even hinder fair investigations.

"When an individual police officer is attacked and his motives impugned, the force will close ranks. It doesn't matter if it's a man of the cloth, an elderly grandmother, or the president of the United States, the union is going to respond," says Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle.

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