When police officers perform their official duties, then there is a particular level of discretion they must use when interacting with the public. It is not unusual for an official to be performing their work alone, so situations can arise when this topic can come into play. It is up to each person to decide on their own in a specific moment as to what to do or how to react to the situation developing in front of them.
Several different decisions may require the use of police discretion simultaneously. An officer might need to consider whether or not to draw a weapon, make an arrest, issue a traffic ticket, perform a search, or stop to offer assistance to someone. Almost every situation presents an opportunity for this practice to be observed.
The use of police discretion provides officers with the flexibility they require to perform their job adequately. It allows each person to interpret applicable laws and then act upon them based on the choices made in that moment.
The advantages and disadvantages of police discretion are numerous and virtually infinite, so these are the critical points to review.
List of the Advantages of Police Discretion
1. Police discretion allows officers to make decisions when a clear solution may not exist.
The principle of police discretion allows a law enforcement official to make effective decisions while on the job when clear solutions may not be available. That means each officer has the flexibility to handle a situation in the manner that they feel best meets the needs of the individual and their overall community. Instead of applying a specific statute in a standardized way, it becomes possible to serve and protect in ways that the law might not envision based on its wording.
2. It permits the use of force when necessary to keep a community safe.
Police discretion allows law enforcement officials to utilize their skills and experience to determine an acceptable level of force against a suspect. Officers can use lethal force with this advantage if they believe a potential offender is threatening the life of a civilian, themselves, or a fellow officer. It gives them the right to defend their life without the obligation to do so.
For most police officers, preserving life is the best-case scenario. The principles of police discretion make this possible while also allowing for a higher level of force to get applied when necessary to prevent future injuries.
3. This principle allows an officer to pick and choose their enforcement opportunities.
It isn’t practical for a police officer to attempt to pull over every driver who speeds or violates a traffic law. Even when a contact does occur, it still isn’t necessary to search every vehicle to see if contraband is present in that situation. The advantage of discretion here allows an official to focus their energy on specific situations where the law gets broken in a reckless manner. Officers can also make contact with individuals that they believe could be hiding something or have broken serious laws that require an intervention to keep others safe.
4. It allows for resource allocation.
Detectives can use police discretion as a way to allocate resources to specific activities. Different departments can take advantage of this principle to determine how much time gets spent investigating a specific case. Although patrol officers, on foot or in vehicles, receive the highest degree of autonomy in this area, anyone in law enforcement can enjoy some level of discretion with this advantage. The daily operations of a Police Department would not be as efficient if this approach was not taken regularly.
5. Discretion allows an officer to determine what charges to file against suspects.
Police officers can use discretion to determine what charges get filed against a suspect. That means law enforcement officials can change the nature of the charges that someone faces by choosing a lesser or related one then a severe violation. This principle can also determine how quickly officers arrive at the scene when receiving a dispatch call or the number of officials that need to be present to subdue a situation.
Each of the decisions made in this area can have a significant impact on the safety of the public. It is up to each official to balance the rights of individual suspects with the needs of the overall community.
6. It permits a police officer to use their training for the public good.
Policing is similar to other care-based professions because of the level of care involved in this process. Discretion enables practitioners to use their expertise in training to determine how they should perform well on the job. Although there should be a balance between holding officers accountable and supporting their decision-making processes, the allowance of this policy acknowledges the professionalism that’s expected from local departments.
It also speaks to the trust that the public has in the individual officers determining the best manner to preserve their interests.
7. Discretion is available for offenders of all ages.
Police officers often act as a gatekeeper to the juvenile justice system in the developed world. The discretion they use when interacting with young criminal offenders gives them the option to handle delinquencies and minor offenses in a constructive way. That means fewer kids get charged with a crime because of this principle. Even though discretion can often be viewed as problematic when it doesn’t receive enough oversight, most officials use their judgment in ways that work to preserve societal and family interests whenever possible.
8. Specific areas of concern can get addressed through administrative rulemaking.
When a police department decides to put limits on discretion, then they can do so through a process of administrative rulemaking. Creating specific procedures for officials to follow provides consistency for officers when they are on the job. Although this advantage places limits on how individuals can use their experience and training to benefit others, it also creates more communication lines between them and the public. It works to reduce frivolous charges, constructively engages vulnerable population demographics, and seeks to find ways to supplement the rights of the average person instead of trying to take them away.
List of the Disadvantages of Police Discretion
1. Statutory laws don’t cover every potential situation.
Statutory and common laws don’t cover every potential situation that police officers encounter while on the job. That means there could be times when an offender might not receive a ticket or detainment because of the circumstances involved in their situation. Even if victims attempt to press charges during this situation, officials can decide whether or not to pursue pressing forward with legal intervention.
2. It can be an invitation for cronyism.
If a police officer doesn’t carry out their duties with diligence, then there is an opportunity for some offenders to avoid prosecution because of cronyism. Although most law-enforcement officials are highly ethical and excellent with what they do on the job, a handful of bad apples can interfere with community relations or encourage corruption within the ranks.
Because of the definition of police discretion, these issues can get written off without a beneficial outcome. Some people can commit blatant crimes without consequence due to this disadvantage.
3. Violating orders can lead to the use of excessive force.
Police officers can use a discretionary amount of force to control a potentially dangerous situation. If an official goes beyond this level, then it can lead to problems with excessive force being applied in a specific situation. The barring of excessive force can make some individuals believe that officers must work with them in ways that are gentle, soft, and smooth. When someone violates an order, even if it may be perceived as unlawful, then it creates a higher risk of violence toward the official. That’s why issues of force are often justified, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.
There are specific examples of this disadvantage that create harm to the general public when officers still committed acts of violence against people not breaking the law. That’s when an official will cross the thin blue line and can face charges themselves.
4. It can lead to soft law enforcement mechanisms.
When police discretion gets abused at local precincts, it can result in softer law enforcement mechanisms. It may act as a motivation to the general public to be less respectful of the laws and regulations that govern their community. Officials must act with proper prudence and a high degree of confidence and self-esteem to ensure that criminal conduct receives the deterrent consequences needed to keep everyone safe.
5. Some police officers see discretion as being a form of unlimited authority.
Police discretion can sometimes cause law enforcement officers and the general public to believe that unlimited authority exists in the application of statutory or common law. This disadvantage occurs when an unscrupulous officer decides to use this principle as a way to promote their self-interests. Proper supervision from individuals in the higher ranks can reduce this problem, but the individualized nature of the job can make it challenging to have eyes on people at all times of the day.
6. People with wealth tend to receive more of the benefits of discretion.
Accountability requires discretion. No one would argue that point. The issue with this law enforcement principle is that an individual with wealth tends to receive more flexibility than someone living in poverty. The personal bias of the officers involved often look at current and past behaviors as a way to determine whether a significant intervention is necessary. If someone is rich, then the natural implication is that wealth could be made while violating the law.
It is for this reason that the population demographic who is most likely to go to jail or prison is a young, unemployed male or an African-American in the United States. This issue also holds true internationally for black men without jobs.
7. It is a principle that gives the police officer the benefit of the doubt.
Members of society disproportionally receive the benefit of the doubt when a police officer exercises their discretion. Outside of the advantage, anyone who has an association with law enforcement may receive special treatment that wouldn’t be possible without that connection. It is a disadvantage that is known as the “power model,” leading to inequities in enforcement for different demographics. This problem can even lead to conduct that violates the constitutional rights of citizens.
8. The use of police discretion can put the public at risk.
Police officers can use discretion as a way to protect the general public. Their decision-making can also lead to situations where there is a higher risk of harm to a civilian. The choice to engage in a high-speed chase or not attempts to balance the need to capture a suspect against the potential for an injury because of pursuit activities. Choosing to engage will place anyone in the way at a greater risk of harm since the suspect and officers may go through intersections or drive in unauthorized areas.
That’s why it is up to the general public to be observant of their surroundings at all times. If a criminal matter occurs, then a person’s observations can encourage them to stay out of the situation as best as possible.
It would be virtually impossible for a police department to exist without using the privilege of discretion. Officers would be required to operate like a mechanical instrument, following standardized practices whenever a potential incident occurs. Every person, no matter how minor their offense might be, would get arrested and taken to court to face charges without this presence of this principle.
That means police discretion does an excellent job of streamlining our criminal justice system when it is correctly applied. It limits burnout in law enforcement because it gives officers an opportunity to issue warnings instead of either charging people or letting them off the hook.
The advantages and disadvantages of police discretion apply at all levels of law enforcement. It is useful as a tool to be proactive in jurisdictional issues, creating initiatives, or working with the average person on the street. Although a small minority might abuse this principle, most officials use it to create positive results for everyone.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.