Contempt of cop

Contempt of cop

Contempt of cop is law enforcement jargon in the United States for behavior by citizens towards law enforcement officers that the officers perceive as disrespectful or insufficiently deferential to their authority.[1][2][3][4] It is a play on words, and not an actual crime. The phrase is associated with arbitrary arrest and detention and is often discussed in connection to police misconduct such as use of excessive force or even police brutality[5] as a reaction to perceived disrespectful behavior[6] rather than for any legitimate law enforcement purpose.[7]

Arrests for contempt of cop may stem from a type of "occupational arrogance" when a police officer thinks he or she should not be challenged or questioned.[8] From such officers' perspective, contempt of cop may involve perceived or actual challenges to their authority, including a lack of deference (such as disobeying instructions,[9] or expressing interest in filing a complaint against the officer).[7] Flight from the police is sometimes considered a variant of contempt of cop.[10] Contempt of cop situations may be exacerbated if other officers witness the allegedly contemptuous behavior.[11]

Charges such as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer may be cited as official reasons for a contempt of cop arrest.[7] Obstructing a police officer or failure to obey a police order is also cited in arrests in some jurisdictions, particularly as a stand-alone charge without any other charges brought.[12][13]


Freedom of speech is protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, so non-threatening verbal "abuse" of a police officer is not in itself criminal behavior,[14][15][16] though some courts have disagreed on what constitutes protected speech in this regard.[17][18] The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1942 that fighting words that "tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" are not protected speech, but later cases have interpreted this narrowly,[19] especially in relation to law enforcement officers.[20] In 2013, a federal appeals court ruled that giving the finger "alone cannot establish probable cause to believe a disorderly conduct violation has occurred". [21]

Racial aspects

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer conducted a study in 2008 that found that in the city of Seattle, "African-Americans were arrested for the sole crime of obstructing eight times as often as whites when population is taken into account."[12] The New Jersey Attorney General also found a significant number of contempt of cop cases while investigating racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police, and concluded that "improper attitude and demeanor" of officers toward the public was a nationwide problem.[8] Contempt of cop is a form of "interactional discrimination" against people who are more likely to show disrespect and who lack the financial resources to defend themselves effectively in court (such as young black people who have a historically poor relationship with police) increasing their probability of arrest, which may contribute to racial discrimination in law enforcement.[22]


Contempt of cop has been in use since the 1960s.[5][23] The phrase is derived by analogy from the word cop, which is slang for police officer, and the phrase contempt of court, which unlike contempt of cop, is an offense in many jurisdictions (see, e.g., California Penal Code section 166, making contempt of court a misdemeanor). Similar to this is the phrase "disturbing the police", a play on "disturbing the peace". It has also been referred to as "flunking the attitude test".[22] In some areas it is called P.O.P. or "Pissing Off the Police"- when the suspect demeanor influences officer's response to citizens. "Leniency might be afforded to persons who treat officers with respect, whereas the heavy hand of the law is extended to persons who are disrespectful, ill mannered or rude."[24]

In crime writing and works about police misconduct, it has become something of a cliché to sardonically refer to contempt of cop as the worst possible crime.[25]

See also

References and footnotes

  1. ^ Baruch et al., 140.
  2. ^ Walker, 55.
  3. ^ Steverson, 300.
  4. ^ Mac Donald, Heather (2009-07-24). "Promoting Racial Paranoia". National Review Online. Retrieved 2009-07-26. 
  5. ^ a b Lawrence, 48.
  6. ^ Walker, 52.
  7. ^ a b c Collins, 51
  8. ^ a b  
  9. ^ Shapiro, 119.
  10. ^ Walker, 153.
  11. ^  
  12. ^ a b Nalder, Eric; Kamb, Lewis; Lathrop, Daniel (2008-02-28). "Blacks are arrested on 'contempt of cop' charge at higher rate".  
  13. ^ Wilham, T.J. (2008-11-25). "'"N.M. cops can't arrest for 'refusing to obey.  
  14. ^ Rochman, Bonnie (2009-07-26). "The Gates Case: When Disorderly Conduct is a Cop's Judgment Call". TIME. Retrieved 2009-07-26.  'In contempt of court, you get loud and abusive in a courtroom, and it's against the law,' says [Jon] Shane, now a professor of criminal justice at John Jay who specializes in police policy and practice. 'With contempt of cop, you get loud and nasty and show scorn for a law enforcement officer, but a police officer can't go out and lock you up for disorderly conduct because you were disrespectful toward them.' The First Amendment allows you to say pretty much anything to the police. 'You could tell them to go f--k themselves,' says Shane, 'and that's fine.'  
  15. ^ Writing for the Court in City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987), Justice Brennan said, "The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state." — 482 U.S. 451, at 463
  16. ^ In Duran v. City of Douglas, 904 F.2d 1372 (9th Circuit, 1990) the Court held that giving a police officer the "finger" was protected speech. Writing for the Court, Judge Kozinski said, "But disgraceful as Duran's behavior may have been, it was not illegal; criticism of the police is not a crime."
  17. ^ Some lower courts have considered certain speech to constitute  .
  18. ^ In 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court, without ruling on the merits, allowed to stand a  
  19. ^ Egelko, Bob (2001-08-08). "Swearing at police is criticism, not crime / Appeals court overturns 2 convictions".  
  20. ^ In United States v. Poocha, 259 F.3d 1077 (9th Cir. 2001), Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the 2-1 majority that, "criticism of the police, profane or otherwise, is not a crime."
  21. ^ "NY court: Flipping finger at cops not worth arrest". CBS News. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 
  22. ^ a b Coleman, 136.
  23. ^ Cashmore, 180.
  24. ^ Hess, Christine. Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Delmar Cengage Learning. 2012. 10th edition. Pg 281. ISBN 978-1-111-30908-4
  25. ^ See, e.g., Jeffrey Goldberg reviewing New York's Finest in the New York TimesSeptember 17, 2000 : "[The officer] was simply giving voice to one of the immutable beliefs of the New York City police officer, that contempt of cop, as it is called, is the worst crime of all"; Coady et al. at 94: "Those who defy or challenge police authority are punished for failing the 'attitude test' and committing the worst crime of all—'contempt of cop'"; or Barbara Seranella's novel No Man Standing (2003), at 18: "It was more of a power thing, daring you to commit the worst offense: Contempt of Cop."

External links

  • "Beyond Gates arrest, a growth of police power," by Patrik Jonsson
  • "Disorderly (mis)Conduct: The Problem with 'Contempt of Cop' Arrests" by Christy E. Lopez (link goes to Internet Archive copy of the original page, which no longer exists)

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