police discretion | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Policing

Police discretion is the power given to law enforcement officers to make decisions in the course of their duties based on their judgment and experience rather than on strict rules or regulations.

Police discretion refers to the ability of police officers to make decisions in the course of their work that is based on their own judgment and experience rather than on strict rules or regulations. This can include decisions about whether to make an arrest, issue a citation, or use force in a particular situation. Police officers are granted a certain degree of discretion to allow them to respond appropriately to a wide variety of situations they encounter on the job.

One of the key factors that influence police discretion is the nature of the offense or situation at hand. For example, officers may be more likely to use discretion in cases of minor offenses or when dealing with individuals who pose little threat to public safety. On the other hand, they may be less likely to use discretion when dealing with more serious offenses or individuals who present a greater risk to public safety.

Another factor that can influence police discretion is the individual officer’s own biases or personal beliefs. Police officers are human beings, and as such, they are subject to the same biases and prejudices as any other individual. These biases can influence the decisions they make in the course of their work, even if they are not consciously aware of it.

Police discretion can also be influenced by external factors, such as community expectations or political pressure. For example, in communities with a strong emphasis on community policing or building relationships with residents, officers may be more likely to use discretion to avoid damaging those relationships. On the other hand, in communities where there is a strong emphasis on aggressive law enforcement or “zero tolerance” policies, officers may be less likely to use discretion and more likely to make arrests or issue citations.

Despite the potential benefits of police discretion, there are also concerns about its use. One of the main concerns is that it can lead to inconsistent or unfair treatment of individuals based on factors such as race, ethnicity, or social status. For example, studies have shown that police officers are more likely to use force or make arrests when dealing with African American or Latino individuals, even when controlling for factors such as the severity of the offense.

To address these concerns, many police departments have implemented training programs designed to help officers recognize and overcome their own biases and prejudices. Additionally, some departments have implemented policies and procedures designed to standardize the use of discretion to reduce the potential for inconsistent or unfair treatment. However, the use of police discretion remains a controversial issue in law enforcement, and debates about its appropriate use are likely to continue in the years to come.

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Last Modified: 03/13/2023


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