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Recalibrating the thin blue line with the ‘disorderly conduct theory’

If you’re policing in a community where the thin blue line has been erased by policymakers, then it’s time to discuss this theory as part of the solution to the problem


Consider making a difference by going “high profile” on the street to recalibrate the thin blue line.

Photo/Dan Marcou

Once beautiful cities are littered with human waste, garbage, needles and over-run by miscreants.

The behaviors of these troublemakers terrorize both children and adults alike. Crime is causing countless businesses to move out of these negligently run municipalities in search of a more hospitable environment.

As a retired police officer, I have often asked myself: “What I would do if I was still working a beat and wanted to turn things around?”

Experience has taught me not all police problems can be solved by arrests.

However, I am quite certain that the only way to stop out-of-control criminality is through dedicated, highly visible cops making many arrests – especially for disorderly conduct. Nothing says law enforcement has the situation in hand like a professional police officer quickly and expertly taking control of a person who refuses to control themselves.

This perception I have comes from my commander in my youth, who, whenever bad behaviors got out of hand in a particular area, would schedule us to give special attention to that area.

At the beginning of our shift, as we headed for the problem area, our commander, whom we all greatly respected, sent us off on our mission with these words: “High profile tonight.”

With that said, we had our marching orders.

“High profile” did not mean driving around waiting for a robbery, riot or murder. He was telling us we were to look for and arrest for all violations, such as public consumption, urinating/defecating in public, being in the park after hours, littering, but most especially for illegal disorderly behavior which disturbed the peace.

High profile meant we were to arrest for all infractions unless discretion was clearly called for.

Our lieutenant believed many big disturbances, even crimes, could be prevented by an active, visible police presence arresting on-site those openly committing smaller violations, especially disorderly conduct.

He believed if you put out a cigarette butt now, you won’t have to put out the forest fire later. I shall call this approach the “disorderly conduct theory.”

This is more proactive than the “broken window theory,” because often the disorderly conduct is a precursor to the window getting broken.

Practical application of the ‘disorderly conduct theory’

To apply this theory means a working beat cop knows his or her beat and recognizes from experience that certain behaviors cause larger disturbances. Unchecked, they often lead to more serious crimes. Here is one disorderly conduct statute/ordinance:

Whoever, in a public or private place, engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, unreasonably loud or otherwise disorderly conduct under circumstances in which the conduct tends to cause or provoke a disturbance is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.

In practice, officers will arrest a suspect for being loud and threatening before he or she carries out those threats. The disorderly conduct arrest can serve as a conduit for reclaiming the streets from an out-of-control criminal element.

The disorderly conduct statute/ordinance can be used either as a stand-alone offense or as a companion offense when other crimes are being committed.

For example, in cases where restaurants are damaged, bystanders are battered or threatened, you can arrest on criminal damage to property and battery. By arresting for disorderly conduct as well, when the complainant drops the charges as they sometimes do, when you have witnessed the disorderly conduct, the officer-witnessed disorderly conduct charge can stand. This sends the message that police will not be intimidated and this unlawfully disorderly behavior will not be tolerated on our streets.

The value of a disorderly conduct arrest

The physical disorderly conduct arrest, when appropriate, can also be the de-escalation tool that brings peace back to a chaotic scene. Arresting a troublemaker for this violation not only causes a de-escalation of the incident, but it also prevents the escalation of a suspect‘s aggressiveness.

Here are some practical applications of the “disorderly conduct theory":

  1. Fights: If combatants must be physically broken apart by officers, then both participants are being disorderly.
  2. A police-witnessed battery: When an aggressor strikes someone in an officer’s presence with no justification and the victim declines pressing charges, a charge of disorderly conduct makes certain such dangerous behavior does not go totally unpunished.
  3. A theft, which a district attorney refuses to prosecute: When a district attorney refuses to prosecute retail thefts under a certain amount, criminals become brazen and aggressive. These criminals often create a disturbance while committing these crimes, creating justification for an arrest for disorderly conduct even if the amount of the theft does not satisfy your derelict district attorney.
  4. In-progress disturbance: Any person who enters a crowded restaurant and begins yelling or screaming a stream of obscenities at traffic from a street corner is being disorderly. Anyone threatening to beat someone they do not even know is being disorderly. And last but not least, anyone who starts a chant in a crowd, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” is being disorderly.

Policing or Over-Policing?

Throughout the 33 years of my law enforcement career, the practical application of what I call the “disorderly conduct theory” was supported by the chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, juries and the communities where like policies were put into play.

This and concentrated enforcement programs like zero tolerance, criminal interdiction and C.A.R.E. Cars helped cause the turn-around called the “Great Crime Decline” from the early 90s until 2010.

Since 2020, the same “leaders” whose policies have led to the current crime problem will stand against implementing any solution that resembles increased efforts by police to reign in criminals. They will call these efforts “over-policing” or worse.

Last word

If you are policing in a community where the thin blue line has been erased by these misguided policymakers, then it is time to discuss the “disorderly conduct theory” as part of the solution to the problem.

As my wise old commander would say, consider making a difference by going “high profile” on the street to recalibrate the thin blue line.

That’s what I would do.

NEXT: Preparing your police department’s response to demonstrations in an imperfect world

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.