Police Discretions, Its Uses, and Thesis

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Therefore, it does not seem logical that a police department could exist without at least some form of discretionary decision-making.

Discretion is used at just about every level of a police department, from the officers on patrol to detectives and even management. Another expert notes, "Police encounter a wide range of behaviors and a variety of situations that the law hasn't even thought about yet. One of the most amazing things about policing is not who they arrest, but who and how many they let go (nonarrest options, leniency, underreaction)" (O'Connor, 2004). Thus, discretion lives at every level of a department. An officer lets a speeder go with a warning, a supervisor lets an officer off with a warning about behavior, a detective chooses not to prosecute a domestic violence suspect where an ounce of marijuana is discovered on the premises, and a police chief chooses to suppress information about an activity or raid. In addition, discretion certainly exists between peers in the department, who may consciously or unconsciously influence others by their attitudes and arrest patterns. As another writer notes, "[S]ome law is always or almost always enforced, some is never or almost never enforced, and some is sometimes enforced and sometimes not" (Edwards, 2006). These differences may lead to outcries from the public, but they are all areas of discretion used throughout the department for various reasons.

In the patrol division, discretion can be used in any number of ways, as this paper has discussed. A patrol officer can choose to ignore a certain complaint, answering another that seems more important or dangerous, he or she can offer a warning instead of a ticket, or choose to arrest some one or write them a ticket. Those are all discretionary decisions. In the detective division, it can be even more relevant. A detective may decide not to press charges against someone because there is not enough evidence, or they can choose not to report evidence, such as small amounts of drugs, etc., because they would only clog the legal system that is already overcrowded and overworked.
These are all discretionary decisions that should have little outcome on overall public safety and public perception, and they show how discretionary decisions occur on a daily basis throughout the department. They also show that discretionary decisions can be abused in the wrong hands, but can be a boon to policing in the right hands.

In conclusion, as long as you have human police officers dealing with other humans, it seems there will be forms of discretion. Every situation, no matter how similar, is not exactly the same as the one before, and that leads to discretionary decisions among law enforcement officers. In addition, officers are trained to think on their feet, react swiftly to situations, and size up situations throughout the daily course of their jobs. This means they have to evaluate each situation, its risks and possible outcomes, and this leads to discretionary thinking. To remove this part of their jobs and their thought process would be dangerous and counterproductive. No situation is exactly the same, and that means the officers decisions should not be the same. Discretionary decisions may be controversial to some of the public, and they can result in the wrong decision at times. However, removing discretionary decisions from policing would create less critical thinking in a police force, could lead to even more overcrowding in jails and criminal justice facilities, and could lead to more public anger against the police and their methods. Discretionary thinking can make a good officer better, and leads to better decision making in policing.


Banks, C. (2004). Criminal justice ethics: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Edwards, M.A. (2006). Law and the parameters of acceptable deviance. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 97(1), 49+.

O'Connor, T. (2004). Police discretion. Retrieved 28 Aug. 2008 from the….....

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