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Beyond Gates arrest, a growth of police power

Arrests of those who challenge police authority are not uncommon, say civil libertarians.

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The arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., for “disorderly conduct” has set off a debate about racial profiling across America. But for civil libertarians, the incident on a front porch in Cambridge, Mass., raises a different issue: what they see as a subtle growth in police power since the war on drugs and 9/11, exemplified in so-called “attitude arrests” – when someone challenges or fails to show deference to police authority.

In Mr. Gates's case, police described his behavior as "tumultuous," but he broke no discernible laws. The Cambridge Police Department conceded as much when it dropped the charges, calling the incident "regrettable." The local police union backs the arresting officer, who said he did nothing wrong.

"What I see as more significant [than race] is the phenomenon of persons being arrested who challenge the authority of police," says David Rudovsky, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia. "It's street punishment."

Nearly all police jurisdictions have so-called "cover charges" such as "disturbing the peace" or "disorderly conduct," which are intended to protect police officers from threat of violence. The extent to which prosecutors and booking officers accept arrests under such charges – which are often defined vaguely – varies widely across the country. Some civil liberties advocates say that these arrests can be subjective, and sometimes a response to back talk.

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