Issue Brief Reveals Prevalence of Unlawful ‘Contempt of Cop’ Arrests

June 11, 2010

The arrest of the Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., last year was illegal and similar "unlawful" arrests happen far too often throughout the country, writes Christy E. Lopez in an ACS Issue Brief.

In "Disorderly (mis)Conduct: The Problem with ‘Contempt of Cop' Arrests," Lopez maintains that the facts as asserted by Cambridge Police Department Sergeant James Crowley about the arrest of the preeminent Harvard scholar was "unlawful." Lopez, a civil rights attorney with a practice focusing on police and criminal justice reform, maintains, "Professor Gates behavior, as described by Sergeant Crowley, falls squarely in the realm of speech protected by the First Amendment. Not surprisingly, the City of Cambridge and the Cambridge Police Department jointly recommended to the Middlesex County District Attorney that the criminal charges against Professor Gates be dropped, and they were."

Gates' situation caught nationwide attention, not just because of his prominence but because President Obama weighed in with criticism of the arrest. But Lopez says such arrests are not unusual, that they're abusive and typically "impact communities of color disproportionately and exacerbate tensions between these communities and law enforcement."

Lopez's Issue Brief, citing Supreme Court precedent, details why many so-called "contempt of cop" arrests are abusive and illegal. First of all, she notes that "objectionable speech directed towards law enforcement is frequently a critique of police action, however inartfully expressed, and the individual's right to criticize government action is at the very heart of the purpose of the First Amendment's speech protections."

In her Issue Brief, Lopez provides examples of illegal arrests across the nation, such as Washington, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and concludes such police actions not only harm the victims but undermine the effectiveness of law enforcement.

Lopez writes:

Police departments need community support to effectively deter crime. Community members who trust the police are more likely to report corner drug dealing, the sighting of a dangerous suspect, and even knowledge about a crime being planned. When a community sees police officers abuse their authority - and experiences or observes the direct harm of that abuse - that trust is undermined and the relationship between police and the communities they work for suffers.

Such arrests also "drain resources," she writes. "In Washington D.C., for example, the Metropolitan Police Department made 10,600 disorderly conduct arrests in one year, accounting for more than one in five arrests," she writes. And, "In Baltimore, Maryland, in 2008, there were 9,983 arrests that did not lead to charges after prosecutors declined to prosecute the cases. Many of these arrests were for violations such as loitering, trespassing, and drinking a beer - arrests that a federal lawsuit alleges show a pattern of abuse."

Lopez provides a number of suggestions for eliminating unlawful "contempt of cop" arrests, such as updating and modifying laws, better training of police officers, stronger supervision, documentation and accountability.

See Lopez's Issue Brief here.

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