"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," the president said, arguing that Gates should not have been arrested.
Mr. Obama added that he has "extraordinary respect for the difficulties of the job that police officers do." He told ABC that his "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."
The president said it is his understanding that the sergeant who arrested Gates, James Crowley, is an "outstanding police officer." But he said Crowley made a mistake in arresting "a guy in his own home if he's not causing a serious disturbance."
Crowley, who reportedly teaches a class on racial profiling, has said he is
Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Hass stood by Crowley in a Thursday afternoon press conference. He said officers "were very much deflated" by the president's comments.
Sgt. Crowley is a stellar member of this department," Hass said. "I don't consider him a rogue cop in any way."
Also Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the president "was not calling the officer stupid."
"He was denoting that...at a certain point the situation got far out of hand, and I think all sides understand that," Gibbs said.
CBS News polling in April found that 23 percent of whites and 33 percent of blacks felt Mr. Obama's presidency has improved race relations. Only seven percent of whites and five percent of blacks said his presidency had worsened race relations. (Read more about recent CBS News polling on race.>)
The full interview with the president will air on ABC's Nightline tonight, adding more fuel to the fire of a controversy that seems unlikely to disappear from the headlines anytime soon.