Contempt of Cop v. Contempt of Court
July 31, 2009, 03:23 PM
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The fairly arbitrary exercise of judges' power to cite, fine, and even imprison for "Contempt of Court" hasn't much been criticized in four decades. The last time I can recall a harsh spotlight being shone on the institution of "contempt of court" was when the antics of the Chicago Seven (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Mr. Jane Fonda, etc.) at the end of the Sixties overwhelmed the irate judge.

As I've suggested before, "contempt of cop" needs to remain in a legal grey area below the certainties of "contempt of court." Yet, the concept can't be dismissed out of hand. Policemen aren't judges, although they need to share in some of the awful majesty of the law to do what needs to be done effectively and safely. Moreover, they deal with people in much more, uh, exuberant settings than a courtroom, so cops should (and typically do) cut people more slack than judges do.

On the other hand, judges don't really need as wide a variety of ways to enforce order as policemen do, since courthouse procedures are carefully planned around order and safety. For example, the last time I served on a jury, when I arrived early in the courtroom, there would often be a defendant there to see his lawyer make some minor motion, such as asking for a delay in the trial. A high proportion of the seemingly harmless defendants were manacled to the 300 pound defense table.

So, I end up where I started: arresting people for contempt of cop is less defensible than arresting people for contempt of court, but it's by no means ridiculous, either. It's one of those gray areas that the law needs, but can't be too proud of either.

By the way, it's striking how the ambiguous Gatesgate case generates so much more media comment than the similar but unambiguous Fire Department of New York disparate impact discrimination decision in Vulcan Society. You might think that conservatives would jump all over this slur of the FDNY, since everybody loves a fireman. Yet, there's been almost total silence. (Other than one particular outpost ...)

Obviously, the vast majority of media types can't deal with statistics, but the FDNY issue suffers from lack of a partisan angle. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations, the GOP and the Dems, have been on the side of slandering the FDNY, so the media have almost ignored the decision, or meekly accepted it, since it doesn't fit in their partisan framework. Chris Roach writes about how the notoriously unfriendliness of semi-militarized modern cops compared to the amiable cops-on-the-beat of Frank Capra movies is, paradoxically, an outgrowth of the anti-authority movement of the 1960s:

In the name of freedom from oppression, however, we got more crime and disorder. The 1970s was the era of the barricaded front door, deserted streets after dark, occasional urban riots, skyrocketing crime, disorder, and the increased use of force in arrests for a very obvious reason: criminals became unused to submitting to authority after a lifetime of disobedience coupled with mixed messages from teachers, the media, and the culture. Force had to supply what once could be commanded by stern words and police presence alone. The cultural radicals mostly isolated themselves from the consequences of their teachings in gated communities, Upper East Side Co-ops, or some Ivory Tower. The working class people grew uncomfortable, and this discomfort culminated in the Nixon victory and the Reagan Revolution. They never bought the liberal line on law and order, not least because they had to pay a dear price for this �liberation.�

A culture of widespread respect for police guarantees greater public safety and allows the police to use less force. They use less force in such a milieu because suspects are habituated to to submit, know that the community would side with the police, and those troublemakers who are willful and disorderly can be detained before things get out of hand. This both teaches them a lesson and serves pour encourger les autres. This is the world that prevailed before the 1960s. It was a safer world with less violence. Police in those days were unironically praised, respected, honored, and given the benefit of the doubt. This culture of respect paid countless dividends, dividends given short shrift by the courts, the media, and now the President of the United States.

I have a feeling this comes down to who watches Cops versus who listens to NPR.

The rate of cop killings has fallen in half since the 1970s, despite crooks being ever more heavily armed. Technology, such as bulletproof vests, have definitely improved, but cops tend to be better trained and more professional now. (The hit kids movie Paul Blart, Mall Cop affectionately satirized this trend.) Cops don't get shot much when making traffic stops anymore because they've worked out exactly how to do it to minimize the crook's incentive to shoot the cop and make a run for the border.

One interesting aspect is that the friendlier police forces of the past also tended to be more corrupt. Much like in the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings, where the returning hobbits who battled Sarum drive out gangsters who took over the Shire, WWII vets in the late 1940s cleaned up a lot of crooked police forces. For example, vets played the key role in turning the Santa Monica police force from the outrageously corrupt "Bay City" cops of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels into what it is today.

Similarly, WWII vet William H. Parker professionalized the LA Confidential-era LAPD, turning it from a crooked beat-walking force into a mostly honest quasi-militarized car-mounted Thin Blue Line. Parker, like J. Edgar Hoover, was a PR genius, and, for better or worse, police forces have tended to follow the LAPD's lead.