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Disorderly Conduct, Disorderly Cops or Disorderly Reaction?

By       Message June Werdlow Rogers     Permalink
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Police cannot get to a scene as fast as they would like. I told them that; I even apologized. And guess what happened! They immediately calmed down. I knew what they did not which when conveyed to them, changed the dynamics of the situation. But the matter could have gone in an entirely different direction. My partner had already started yelling back at them, making the situation more tense. Failing to diffuse, would have caused the exchange to escalate undoubtedly probably causing the citizens to become convinced that they "didn't matter". That may have caused one or more of them to say or do something really "disorderly". But as it is, the account has remained with me some 30 years later as an example of a personal success. I could get into the races of all of the parties involved, but it would serve no purpose in this particular discussion. To me, it boils down to the true mission of police, that being to serve and protect. As cops, our jobs are not designed to stroke our egos or offer up opportunities to assert our authority whenever someone aggravates us.

I have had to use physical force to control situations on many occasions; however, most circumstances do not require it. In fact, in the example given, I would have counted it a failure had we victimized the victims all over again. The perspective taken in a situation should not change facts; but in the widely publicized controversy about the arrest of Harvard Professor Harry Gates at his home by Cambridge Sergeant James Crowley, vantage points seem to affect viewpoints. In this situation, Professor Gates describes the officer's actions as disorderly, Sergeant James Crowley describes Professor Gates as disorderly, and the rest of the world watching America's debate on this issue would probably describe all of us as disorderly, yet the facts remain. The indisputable realities are that sometime after it was determined that Professor Gates was not a burglar, he was arrested for disorderly conduct in his own home; charges that were later dropped - period. From this we can extrapolate that Sergeant Crowley's decision to make an arrest for disorderly conduct was a poor one in the eyes of many - including me.

Focusing energies on rationalizing the police officer's poor decision seems like a waste of time; especially since we want our police officers to always exercise good sound judgment. The mayor's approach of initiating a probe with the objective being to avoid a repeat of the situation seems like a good idea. Every profession is subject to criticism from time to time that can be constructive, and the institution of policing cannot be exempt from that. Police should respond as thick-skinned to criticism confronted in the field as that encountered from the larger society; it can lead to advancement.

It is long over-due that the concept of "disorderly conduct" be examined. I can tell you from my days as a law enforcement officer that application of this illegality label is subjective and discretionary. Disorderly conduct is the "throw down charge" with officers operating along the lines of being able to arrest anyone, anytime particularly when there is an affront to an officer's authority. It was just the offense we would have likely used if we had been inclined to arrest those who had summoned us on the B&E. And if we had arrested one of the people who had called us for help that day, it would have been stupid. Let us, police officer and citizen, strive not to behave stupidly or disorderly as we continue the national dialogue in our collective quest to ensure that our nation is an orderly one with liberty and justice for all.

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DEA Special Agent in Charge (retired) June Werdlow Rogers (formerly June W. Stansbury) holds a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice and Criminology earned at the University of Maryland. She has 28 years of law enforcement experience from 3 different agencies (more...)

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