The Disadvantages of Police Discretion

by Jonathan Lister

Police must utilize good judgment while in the field to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

Police image by Zeno from Fotolia.com

Police officers face decisions every day that have no clear-cut rule for response. Discretion is part of an officer's decision-making process in navigating those situations that lack a distinct path towards a solution. Discretion is part of the job and always has been but its use can lead to perceptions of bias, favoritism and a do-nothing appearance.

The Appearance of Racial Profiling

Law enforcement officers are continually questioned on the use of police discretion as a tool for unfairly targeting minority ethnic populations. The 2010 passage of Arizona's tough immigration laws highlights these issues with regard to racial profiling and the credibility of law enforcement officials. Under this law, failure to carry immigration documents can be considered a crime in Arizona and power is granted to police to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant if they can't prove their legal status. According to the New York Times website, opponents of Arizona's legislation call it a police free pass to harass Hispanics regardless of citizenship status. Many Arizona police officers oppose the legislation because they feel it limits their discretion.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is one of the largest areas of the law where police discretion is utilized most frequently. Police encounter female victims that are uncooperative and have difficulty ascertaining the truest version of a story from both parties. The result more often that not is to do nothing and arrest no one. A discretionary decision of inaction often worsens the problem. In 1984, the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment found that males that committed domestic violence and were not arrested were twice as likely to re-offend as those who were arrested.

The Problem of Indecision

According to the Justice Information Center's website, police discretion creates a realm of gray area for the police officer because of the lack of positive enforcement of rules by police administrators. Officers are only told what not to do, and regulations suffer from oversimplification. The result is a moment of indecision where the situation the officer faces is too complex to be resolved quickly or with one rule-based decision. This is most often seen in the proper application of force where the officer must make a judgment on how much force is necessary to subdue the suspect versus protecting his life and the lives of others.

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About the Author

Jonathan Lister has been a writer and content marketer since 2003. His latest book publication, "Bullet, a Demos City Novel" is forthcoming from J Taylor Publishing in June 2014. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Shippensburg University and a Master of Fine Arts in writing and poetics from Naropa University.