Police Discretion


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Police Discretion

            Police discretion refers to the decision made by individual police officers before taking a course of action. Sometimes officers are faced with immediate situations, and they have to make quick decisions without consulting other officers. In some cases, officers do not have to exercise discretion while working, and they have to do what the law stipulates. How the police exercise discretion depends on several factors, such as how they interpret the law and the seriousness of the crime. Most officers choose to disregard minor offences and they usually let the offender free. The attitude of the offender determines how the officers are going to handle him. They are also guided by their level of experience, background, values, personality and beliefs (Gaines & Miller, 2008). Officers usually have a lot of power, and they have to be accountable with how they use this power. They have to be responsible and accountable for their actions. Failure to do this results in abuse of power.

There are several positive uses of discretion. First discretion enables the police officers to maintain order quickly. In case of chaos, the officers do not have to rely on their supervisors to know what to do. Discretion enables the police to reduce the rate of crime in the society. The officers are motivated when allowed to exercise discretion when carrying out their duties. Police discretion is crucial as it benefits the other departments in the criminal justice system. It would not be beneficial for the police to arrest every person who violated the law. This would put a lot of burden for the judges and prosecutors. The jails are already overcrowded, and the police will not help matters by adding the number of offenders in the prison. Discretion enables the police to focus on crimes that are of a more serious nature.

In some cases, the police have sometimes abused their discretion. They have sometimes violated people’s constitutional rights, and have used excessive power on suspected offenders. This has cause outrage among different groups of people, especially those who have been victimized. Many people who oppose police discretion cite the fact that it leads to discriminatory practices. They argue that the police decide whom to arrest, and this can sometimes mean that they relax some laws. There is therefore, a possibility that the rates of crime would increase if the police were to abuse their discretionary powers. People from a certain group of people would be arrested more than others would if the police were to favor one group over the others. This would cause resentment among the people, who are largely helpless under such circumstances.

I do not think that a police department can exist if the use of discretion by police officers were to be banned. Many people oppose discretion out of fear that it will lead to discrimination and corruption. This has changed in modern times, as police officers have become more professional in their work than before. Moreover, the Supreme Court has taken a tougher stand over the years, when dealing with the police officers who abuse their power. They have ensured that the police officers respect the constitution by respecting people’s individual rights and freedom. Officers use their judgment when deciding whether to arrest or charge a suspect or offender. The law cannot guarantee the safety of all people in a society. The law does not provide regulations on what to do in every situation. The officers feel respected in the society when they are allowed to use their discretion. In many situations, the officers do not abuse their power and the fact that they are able to use discretion shows that people have confidence in them. A police department that relies entirely on the law and disregards the ability of the officers to use discretion becomes bureaucratic and rigid. The use of discretion increases flexibility (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2010).

Different levels in the police department exercise discretion since they have to make decisions concerning policies and practices. Different police departments use different styles of policing. They have different roles and responsibilities, and they use discretion differently. Some departments use watchman-style and are more concerned with serious crimes and in maintaining public order. They use discretion when they are dealing with minor crimes and misdemeanors. They choose to disregard minor violations, and they will often dismiss the offenders with a warning. Departments, which choose to use legalistic styles, do not use discretion at all. They discourage discretion and they cite it as a way of encouraging corruption in the department. They choose to apply the same standards in all situations. They apply the law and they are highly centralized and bureaucratic. They arrest all who have committed any violation regardless of their status or the type and seriousness of the crime committed. Some departments use the service style, which is more relaxed in nature. They provide services to the people, and they rarely use the criminal justice system. They often use discretion, and they rarely arrest people. They are more concerned with protecting the people and ensuring safety and security. Departments can choose to use any of the styles. Most departments combine all the styles.

The patrol division probably has the greatest discretion powers. This is because they are usually not supervised in the course of their duties. They spend more time with ordinary citizens than they do in the office. Patrol officers meet all sorts of people in the course of their work, some of who can be dangerous. They are knowledgeable in criminal behavior, and they know how to study people. They spend much of their time assisting people, and most of them are considered trustworthy and honest. They have to exercise discretionary powers so that they can perform their work properly (Gaines & Miller, 2008). The patrol officers use discretion when deciding whom they will assist in case such a situation arise (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2010). They have to decide how they are going to use their time. Patrol officers encounter many situations. Some of them choose to avoid trouble, while others look for any instance of trouble. The patrol officers use discretion when deciding their area of concentration. Some choose to look for drug violators, while others are more concerned about preventing burglary. Some of the officers face dangerous situations, and they have to decide the amount of force they are going to use.      Detectives investigate crime, and they have to exercise discretion when deciding the extent to which they are going to investigate a particular crime. They have to decide which evidence they are going to use, and the suspects they are going to pursue. Detectives decide the investigative methods that are best suitable for solving the case. They exercise discretion when handling suspected offenders (Cordner & Scarborough, 2010). Detectives spend a considerable amount of time before solving crimes. They sometimes spend more time with the suspects, and they have time to follow what the law stipulates. In most cases, they have to check with their supervisors before making decisions. This is unlike the patrol officers who spend much time on the streets. The patrol officers face the situation as it happens and they do not have enough time before taking a course of action. They do not have time to check what the law requires, and they do not have to check with their supervisors before taking any action.

Police discretion is necessary in any society. It can benefit the society, especially if that society maintains and upholds the people’s individual rights. Professionalism within the police force has ensured that the police do not abuse their discretionary power. Some departments use more discretionary power than others do. They do not rely heavily on the criminal justice system, and they often choose to disregard minor violations and misdemeanors. When the police use discretion, it means that people have confidence in them. The ability of the police to exercise their discretionary powers boosts their morale, and they are motivated to work.


Cordner, W. G., & Scarborough, E. K. (2010). Police administration. United Kingdom: Elsevier

Gaines, K. L., & Miller, L. R. (2008). Criminal justice in action. New York, NY: Cengage Learning

Palmiotto, J. M., & Unnithan, P. N. (2010). Policing and society: A global approach. New York, NY: Cengage Learning


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