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Dubious ‘disorderly conduct’ arrests plummet as public turns cameras on cops

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Arrests for disorderly conduct ― what critics call “contempt of cop” because police officers use it to arrest those who disrespect them ― have plummeted in recent years, according to new data released by the FBI. Smartphones have proliferated and the scrutiny of police actions has increased over the same period.

Police made just 386,078 arrests for disorderly conduct in 2015, less than half the more than 800,000 arrests they made on that charge two decades ago. The number of disorderly conduct arrests reported to the FBI has fallen every year since 2007.

The number of arrests for curfew and loitering violations ― two other low-level offenses over which officers have a lot of discretion ― has also dropped dramatically: from 185,100 arrests in 1996 to 140,835 arrests in 2005 to just 44,802 arrests in 2015. The total for last year is less than one-fourth of the total recorded in 1996.

The number of disorderly conduct arrests dropped dramatically just as the nation’s violent crime rate was reaching record low levels. Last year was one of the safest years in recent history, although the violent crime rate did rise by a few points relative to 2014.

Disorderly conduct charges are often labeled “contempt of cop” charges because they give police officers an excuse to arrest someone who isn’t complying with their orders, is doing something they don’t like or is verbally opposing their conduct. Even people trying to video officers’ actions have been arrested for disorderly conduct, even though recording the police is a legal activity.

One particularly high-profile example of alleged disorderly conduct came in July 2009 and involved Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard Law professor. Even though Gates’ arrest was almost certainly unlawful, President Barack Obama was criticized for saying police Sgt. James Crowley acted “stupidly” when he arrested Gates, who had just forced open his own jammed front door. (The charges were later dropped.)

“There is abundant evidence that police overuse disorderly conduct and similar statutes to arrest people who ‘disrespect’ them or express disagreement with their actions,” Christy Lopez, who now serves in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a 2010 paper. “These abusive arrests cause direct and significant harm to those arrested and, more generally, undermine the appropriate balance between police authority and individual prerogative to question the exercise of that authority.”

In what is likely no coincidence, disorderly conduct arrests dropped at the same time that the number of mobile phones with video capability rose and the actions of police officers received greater scrutiny following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

Police officers are also making fewer arrests overall, from 15.16 million arrests in 1996 to 14.09 million in 2005 to 10.79 million in 2015.

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