Lecture 14: What is Public Order Crime?

Welcome to the fourteenth lecture in Fall 2016’s undergraduate criminology course at the University of Maine at Augusta. This week, be sure to read Chapter 14 in your Hagan text; this lecture augments your text with an update to the section of your chapter devoted to the apparent subject matter of your that chapter, “Public Order Crime.” I would like you to turn that phrase — “public order crime” — around in your head and on your tongue this week. Ask yourself: what is a “public order crime?” What is it not? How would you know it when you see it?

After our discussion of public order crime, we end the semester with a review and a request. You have a final exam next week, for which I wish you good preparation and good fortune! As you are evaluated, so the course will be evaluated. The last section of this last lecture asks you to provide some feedback regarding the course so that I can continue to hear your thoughts and improve it for future semesters.

The sections of this week’s lecture are:

What is Public Order Crime?

The idea of “public order crime” is a relatively new one. A review of the phrase’s appearance among the millions of books in Google’s scanned database shows that the phrase is essentially non-existent until the mid 1960s, but quickly gained popularity as a phrase used in books from that point onward:

Relative Presence of the phrase public order crime in books, 1920-2008, source Google Ngrams


This emergence can be traced to the publication of Criminal Behavior Systems — A Typology, a book by Marshall Clinard and Richard Quinney (1967) in which they lay out a list of types of crimes, a list that forms much of the basis of your modern-day criminology textbook:

  • Violent Crime
  • Property Crime
  • Occupational Crime
  • Political Crime
  • Public Order Crime
  • Conventional Crime
  • Organized Crime
  • Professional Crime

In that work, Clinard and Quinney define a “public order crime” as a crime that challenges the existing moral notions in a society. “Public Order Crimes” may do no direct harm to another’s person or property, but they disrupt the existing social order and therefore are criminalized in order to prevent functional damage to the status quo. That status quo may be beneficial to all, only beneficial to a majority, or only beneficial to a small elite that controls a society, but the moral status quo nonetheless determines what behavior qualifies as a “public order crime” and what does not.

Frank Hagan begins your Chapter 14 with a zesty quote regarding public order crime in a book by John Lindquist (1988). Read that quote, then watch the following video. Can you spot any public order crime within it?

What public order crime you see depends significantly on the lens through which you view the people engaged in activities. Is speaking on the sidewalk constitutionally-protected speech, local color, or (in the words of your text) “unpleasant contact with ordinary people”? Is standing on the sidewalk taking in a breath of fresh air interpreted a healthy activity or as an act of loitering or menacing? The answer can vary according to the status of the actor and the neighborhood in which the actor takes places, adding a dimension of stratification to these varieties of crime.

Let that sink in: the very status of an actor can change the nature an action from a creditable behavior to a public order crime.

The abstract notion gains concrete purchase with the current criminal case of Michael Slager, a police officer who video shows shot Walter Scott in the back as Scott ran from Slager:

By running from Officer Slager after being stopped for a non-functioning tail light, Walter Scott was challenging the public order.  Walter Scott died from the multiple gunshots he received.  Walter Scott occupied a number of social statuses.  Consider these statuses.  Is it relevant that Walter Scott was male?  That he was 50 years old? That he wore clothing not indicative of membership in the upper economic classes? That he was black?

In turn, is Michael Slager’s behavior shooting Walter Scott in the back a crime that threatens the public order and is worthy of a criminal conviction?  Consider the statuses Slager occupies: young, police officer, on duty, white.  As I write this lecture, a jury considering Slager’s case is deliberating but deadlocked, unable to reach a verdict.

The shooting of Walter Scott was not unique. In 2014, Laquan McDonald was shot in Chicago some 16 times.  Chicago police have insisted McDonald was “menacing” and that they felt “threatened,” although a video released after these claims were made shows McDonald was walking away from them as a police officer shot and killed him.

Remember, “public order crimes” do no direct harm to another’s person or property, but disrupt the existing social order.  What made Walter Scott’s dash away from a police officer a public order crime?  What made Laquan McDonald a public order criminal?  What about Laquan McDonald was menacing and threatening?  Was it his age of 17, within the peak period of the age-crime curve?  Was it his act of defiant jaywalking (classified in Illinois as an infraction, not a crime)?  Was it his gender?  Was it the color of his skin?

“Public order crimes” can take on a certain hodge-podge, jumbled quality. Look at the behaviors characterized in Hagan’s “public order crimes” chapter. Did you notice how Hagan included “problem drinking,” a “medical model” disorder, in the public order crime chapter? Did you notice that strictly legal if socially problematic massage parlors are included in the discussion of public order crime? How about pool hustling, in the introduction? It’s possible that no law was broken in that example, and yet a “public order crime” is being described.

It appears that Hagan describes acts that, while not illegal, cause some social harm.  What about homosexuality, which receives a major heading in the chapter?  It is true that until three years ago, consensual gay sex was a public order crime in the state of Montana; the act was only legalized in mid-April 2013.  Does homosexuality cause harm?  That’s a matter for debate.  There are some Americans who feel this is the case, but many Americans, including the American Psychological Association, have declared homosexuality not to be a source of harm. Who’s right? Who decides?

These kinds of arguments don’t take place only between different cultures; they occur within cultures as well.  An argument regarding the public order status of a well-attended event is raging among the people of Maine today. You may know about Chickenfest: a camping, gathering, music-playing and drug-taking experience that has happened yearly in Maine. Read this newspaper article to find groups having the same kinds of definitional squabbles about Chickenfest that others might have about alcohol or religious speech. Is Chickenfest a fun time? Is Chickenfest a public danger? Who’s right? Who decides?

Public Art? Graffiti? Political Offense? Crime?

Head to certain parts of Manhattan and you may notice self-promotional chalkings like these:

Samuel Slaps: Street Artist, Self-Promoter or Public Order Criminal?

This chalking could get Samuel Slaps arrested. His inspirations, as he describes them in this video, include graffiti and street artist Banksy:

What is Samuel Slaps? Is he a street artist? A self-promoter? Is he a criminal disrupting the public order? In an issue of the journal Advances in Applied Sociology, sociologist Zeynep Alpaslan (2012) tries to classify street art by criminological standards:

“Modern grafitti is essentially illegal, because it has not been accepted by society (Phillips 1999)…. Joe Austin argues that the Mass Transit Authorities use their actions against street artists to divert public attention away from problems happening in the cities instead of legalizing it and repurposing the use of tax money somewhere else (Austin 2001). Street artists, who are mostly taxpayers themselves, argue that they too have ownership over public spaces that have been unfairly taken over by advertisers (Times 1971). Ironically, street art, which is considered illegal, gains permission to be displayed when endorsed by corporations (Niccolai 2001). This reveals a double standard and indicates that certain groups in society enjoy privileges when deciding what is art or crime….

“[Public order crime] is defined as crime which involves acts that interfere with the operations of society and the ability of people to function efficiently…. it asserts the need to use the law to maintain order both in the legal and moral sense…. the mere presence of street art may be considered a threat due to the understanding that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition, meaning free of street art, may stop further street art or as the Broken Window Theory (Wilson & Kelling 1984) puts it, “vandalism,” as well a an escalation into more serious crime. Yet all this raises another important question: is it not possible to think that all art with political dissent and all artists who create them could be offensive to the State at one point or the other, regardless of whether or not they actually do pose a threat? Would this necessarily mean that the artist is a criminal and that what they have created is a crime?

Alpaslan asserts in these passages that the line between street art, public order crime and political crime is thin. Street art is meant to be a challenge to the public order. It is meant to raise questions. It begs for them. Must some art be criminalized if some questions are not to be asked?

This is not an abstract question in the nation from which Alpaslan writes. Over the past three years in Turkey, anti-authoritarian protesters have used the areas of Taksim Square and Istiklal Street as staging areas. Some of their acts are marches. Some acts are vigils. But some of their acts are street art:

Yellow Fists off Istikal Street in Istanbul Love Music Hate System

Yellow Fists off Istiklal Street in Istanbul

Istiklal Street message in English in Istanbul: Resist

The authorities in Istanbul at times have their guns drawn at the ready, and have with increasing frequency arrested protesters for acts of public dissent:

Gun Drawn on Istiklal Street next to an anti-war demonstration

But much more often the resistance to this public order political crime comes in the form of a bucket of gray paint, designed to obliterate protest messages:

Gray Paint below street art of a face with the word Taksim painted over

At some places on Istiklal Street, the gray paint stretches in great widths:

On Istiklal Street in Istanbul Turkey, Multiple Unapproved Messages are Covered in Gray Paint

And so the gray paint has come to be interpreted as the symbol of government movement against freedom of expression. Consequently, color has come to be seen as a threat to public order. As Web Urbanist reports (2013), when retiree Huseyin Cetinel painted the many steps leading up to Istiklal Street the colors of the rainbow, Istanbul authorities promptly responded to the public threat of color by repainting them a state-approved gray.

Was the response across Turkey criminal?

Final Exam Review

With just a week to go in the semester, I want to remind you that this class does have a required closed-book and proctored final exam scheduled for next week between December 12-16. This exam is not comprehensive for the entire semester, but instead covers material from after the second exam:

The final exam will have much the same structure as the first two exams, incorporating multiple-choice, definition, skill-based and short answer questions.

I know that we have covered this before in lectures and in your syllabus, but it’s so important that I’m not afraid to say it a third time: although this is an online course, these exams will completed using pen and paper and will be proctored, requiring you to travel to an University or University College site near you to take the exams. There are dozens of these sites peppered across the state of Maine, so if you live in Maine there should be a location convenient to you.

Because I’m asking you to travel a short distance to take the exams, you will have a week’s time to complete the exams — any time between December 12 and December 16 — but you need to take action to make the exam system work. Remember that during the first two weeks of the semester, you should have visited http://www.learn2.maine.edu/exam and chosen a location at which to take both exams. Now (when all involved still have the chance to adjust personal schedules) would be a good time to contact the center at which you’ll be taking your exam, to arrange a specific day and time which is practical for both you and the site staff. If you need help contacting the site to arrange a specific day for your exam, please let me know well ahead of time by e-mail (james.m.cook@maine.edu) and I’ll be glad to help.

Best of luck next week!

Extra Credit and Course Evaluations

Before you complete your exam, please consider evaluating this criminology course. This is not only useful for the university administration, but for me too. As an instructor, I’d really like to know what I’ve managed to do well in this course, what you’ve found frustrating, and how I might improve the course. I read each and every last evaluation with care. Of course, the evaluations don’t come back to me until next semester and all comments are anonymous unless you choose to sign your name.

Would you take a moment to complete an evaluation online? Here’s how:

  1.  Visit the following link:   https://nanny.umf.maine.edu/uma/common/courseevals/V3/
  2.  Enter your UMS ID and password (identical to the login information used to access your MaineStreet & Blackboard accounts).  This information is used solely to make sure that you have access to the correct course(s), and that only one form per student, per class, is completed. To reiterate, all evaluations are anonymous unless you decide to add your name. I won’t see your responses until after grading is complete, so there’s no chance that evaluations will affect your grade.
  3. When you take online course evaluation(s), please read all the questions and response options carefully. While some question responses are set up from negative to positive, others are set up from positive to negative in order to check response validity.
  4. If you have any questions about the course evaluation system, or if you have technical problems and need help, please contact UMA Provost Joseph Szakas directly!  His e-mail address is umaprovost@maine.edu, and his phone number is 207-621-3216.

A walkthrough guide to course evaluations is available here: https://mycampus.maine.edu/group/uma/courseevalinfo.

Thanks very much for your evaluations — I appreciate your time in filling them out.

At the very end of the semester, I’d also like to offer you an opportunity for a bit of previously unannounced extra credit. As an optional exercise, you may complete an online survey located on our Blackboard page under the link “Extra Credit: Learning Survey.” This survey asks you questions about the extent of your development of written communication and information literacy skills in this criminology course.  Students who thoughtfully and completely answer all of the questions in the survey below will receive 2 points of extra credit added to their 100-point-scale course grade.



Alpaslan, Zeynep. 2012. “Is Street Art a Crime? An Attempt at Examining Street Art Using Criminology.” Advances in Applied Sociology 2(1): 53-58.

Clinard, Marshall and Richard Quinney. 1967. Criminal Behavior Systems — A Typology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Lindquist, John H. 1988. Misdemeanor Crime: Trivial Criminal Pursuit. Newbury Park: Sage.

Web Urbanist. 2013. “Painting as Protest: Rainbow Stairs Spark Guerilla Reaction.” Retrieved 12-8-2013 at http://weburbanist.com/2013/09/29/painting-as-protest-rainbow-stairs-spark-guerilla-reaction/.

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