Wise parents teach their children never to show disrespect for a police officer - even if he's showing no respect to you. Like it or not, the cop has the power to make life unpleasant for anyone in his or her custody. So use "sir" or "ma'am" when you are in that situation, and whatever you do, don't talk back. Being a wiseguy can only make things worse.

Wise parents teach their children never to show disrespect for a police officer - even if he's showing no respect to you. Like it or not, the cop has the power to make life unpleasant for anyone in his or her custody. So use "sir" or "ma'am" when you are in that situation, and whatever you do, don't talk back. Being a wiseguy can only make things worse.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened in Cambridge last week when a pair of police officers responded to a report of someone trying to break into the house on Ware Street. What's undisputed is that there was no crime in progress. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was "breaking into" his own house - trying to force open a stuck door.

Gates, who was inside by the time police arrived, says police Sgt. James Crowley followed him into his house, requesting Gates show identification proving it was his house and that he was, as he claimed, a professor at Harvard. Gates says he showed Crowley his license and Harvard ID. That should have been enough. Case closed.

But according to both Crowley's report and Gates' account, a tense conversation ensued, with racial overtones. Gates says Crowley refused to provide his name and badge number; Crowley says he answered. Crowley says Gates called him a racist; Gates denies it. Their disagreement continued outside onto Gates' front porch, where Crowley arrested and handcuffed the professor.

The charges against Gates have now been dropped, with statements of regret all around, which is a good thing. Even a spirited argument on your front porch shouldn't qualify as criminal behavior. But Gates, one of the nation's most prominent African-American scholars, isn't satisfied. He is demanding a sincere apology from Crowley, and says he intends to use his case to illustrate the problem of racial profiling by law enforcement.

Without knowing the individuals, we can't say whether this is a case of racial profiling, though it would be naive to assume race played no role. We recall the incident back in 1990, when Boston Celtic guard Dee Brown was surrounded by police with guns drawn and forced face down on the sidewalk in Wellesley Hills, his race making him an immediate suspect in a bank robbery.

But it is at least as likely that Gates forgot the rule about always showing inordinate deference to an officer in uniform - and that Crowley forgot an equally important rule: Police should treat every citizen with courtesy and respect. After all, that guy you're pushing around like a street thug may turn out to be someone famous.

The MetroWest Daily News