Contempt of cop

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"Contempt of cop" is law enforcement jargon in the United States for behavior by people toward law enforcement officers that the officers perceive as disrespectful or insufficiently deferential to their authority.[1][2][3][4] It is a play on the phrase contempt of court, and is not an actual offense. The phrase is associated with unlawful arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals, often for expressing or exercising rights guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution. Contempt of cop 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 his or her authority cannot or 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] Fleeing 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 in a contempt of cop arrest.[7] Obstruction of justice 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]

In the case of Nieves v. Bartlett, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the existence of probable cause to make an arrest could generally defeat a retaliatory arrest claim. However, it made an exception "for circumstances where officers have probable cause to make arrests, but typically exercise their discretion not to do so." The majority opinion held that a plaintiff may still prevail on a retaliatory arrest claim "when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been."[22]

Racial aspects[edit]

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] In 2009 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 has been in use since the 1960s.[5][23] The word cop is slang for police officer; the phrase is derived by analogy from contempt of court, which, unlike contempt of cop, is an offense in many jurisdictions (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".[24] In some areas it is called P.O.P. (for "Pissing Off the Police") when a suspect's demeanor influences officer's response to people. "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."[25]

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.[26]

Federal case law[edit]

Several federal court decisions have found that expressing contempt for police officers is protected speech under the First Amendment. In City of Houston v. Hill (1987), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment "protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers." In Swartz v. Insogna (2013), the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that extending the middle finger at an officer is not grounds to stop or arrest an individual.[27][28] However, individual state laws that do not directly pertain to police officers, such as statutes for disorderly conduct and curse and abuse, can be legally used in such an arrest.[citation needed]

In March 2019, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of a woman who filed suit against a police officer who increased the severity of a traffic ticket after she extended her middle finger at him upon receiving the original ticket.[29] In June 2019, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of a man who filed suit against a police officer who arrested him for shouting a derogatory obscenity at him. In both cases, the courts ruled that the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights had been violated and rejected the officers' assertions of qualified immunity.[30]

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Baruch et al., 140.
  2. ^ Walker, 55.
  3. ^ Steverson, 300.
  4. ^ Mac Donald, Heather (2009-07-24). "Promoting Racial Paranoia". National Review Online. Archived from the original on 2009-07-27. Retrieved 2009-07-26.
  5. ^ a b Lawrence, 48.
  6. ^ Walker, 52.
  7. ^ a b c Collins, 51
  8. ^ a b Farmer, John J., Jr.; Zoubek, Paul H. (1999-07-02). "New Jersey Final Attorney General Report on racial profiling". State Police Review Team. Retrieved 2009-07-27.
  9. ^ Shapiro, 119.
  10. ^ Walker, 153.
  11. ^ Page, Clarence (2009-07-26). "Obama's Henry Gates-gate". Real Clear Politics. Retrieved 2009-07-26. Maybe so, but, according to Crowley, Gate[s] was yelling at him in front of his fellow police officers. In long-standing police-civilian etiquette, that's 'contempt of cop.' You disrespect the police officer, the officer has ways of showing you that he has a longer billy club.
  12. ^ a b Nalder, Eric; Kamb, Lewis; Lathrop, Daniel (2008-02-28). "Blacks are arrested on 'contempt of cop' charge at higher rate". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 2009-07-26. The P-I treated an obstructing arrest as "stand-alone" if that was the only charge or if all other charges were for closely related offenses, such as resisting arrest. The number of black men who faced stand-alone obstructing charges during the six-year period reviewed is equal to nearly 2 percent of Seattle's black male population.
  13. ^ Wilham, T.J. (2008-11-25). "N.M. cops can't arrest for 'refusing to obey'". Albuquerque Journal. Retrieved 2009-07-27.
  14. ^ Rochman, Bonnie (2009-07-26). "The Gates Case: When Disorderly Conduct is a Cop's Judgment Call". Time. Archived from the original on July 25, 2009. 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 fighting words. See, e.g., David L. Hudson Jr. "Fighting words". Nashville, TN: First Amendment Center. Archived from the original on 2006-07-09. Retrieved 2009-07-26..
  18. ^ In 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court, without ruling on the merits, allowed to stand a Montana Supreme Court ruling that unprovoked profane utterances to a county deputy constituted fighting words. See: "Supreme Court won't hear dispute over cursing at cops". First Amendment Center. Archived from the original on 2004-06-20. Retrieved 2009-07-27. Today the justices declined without comment to review his appeal in Robinson v. Montana. Their refusal does not address the merits of the issue. By declining to hear Robinson's appeal, justices left undisturbed a Montana Supreme Court ruling that unprovoked utterances are not protected.
  19. ^ Egelko, Bob (2001-08-08). "Swearing at police is criticism, not crime / Appeals court overturns 2 convictions". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-07-27.
  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. ^ "Nieves v. Bartlett, Supreme Court 2019 - Google Scholar".
  23. ^ Cashmore, 180.
  24. ^ Coleman, 136.
  25. ^ Hess, Christine. Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Delmar Cengage Learning. 2012. 10th edition. Pg 281. ISBN 978-1-111-30908-4
  26. ^ See, e.g., Jeffrey Goldberg reviewing New York's Finest in the September 17, 2000 The New York Times: "[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."
  27. ^ "Court: Flipping Off Cops Is Constitutional".
  28. ^ "FindLaw's United States Second Circuit case and opinions". Findlaw.
  29. ^ Fortin, Jacey (March 18, 2019). "A Raised Middle Finger Is Protected Free Speech, Appeals Court Rules". The New York Times.
  30. ^ "Passing Motorist Arrested for Yelling 'F*** You' at State Trooper Vindicated in Federal Court". 3 June 2019.


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