In the world of policing, there is one term that is used quite often by leaders, legislators and commentators. That word is “discretion.” Police officers are given the right and opportunity to act according to their discretion in stopping people, arresting them and using force to bring about an arrest. The idea behind police discretion is that the law should be flexible in some ways in order to ensure that the spirit of the law is satisfied. Whenever big bodies of law are passed, it is possible that just sticking to the letter of the law can lead to inequity. So what does police discretion mean and how is it applied?
A working definition of police discretion
Discretion means the power and ability to make decisions. This is somewhat vague, but so is the concept of police discretion. In the context of policing, discretion means that officers are given some leeway on which they can rely as they make choices that impact the people they are policing. There are some departments that give their officers more discretion. They believe that by hiring good people, they are able to give more leeway to those individuals to ensure that the goals of public safety are obtained. Other departments give their officers less discretion, asking them to abide by a certain set of standards.
Discretion in investigatory stops
One of the most important areas where police have discretion is in deciding who to stop. Most people commit some violation during the course of their day. Often, it is something small like failing to maintain a lane during a turn. Others will go a few miles per hour over the speed limit. It is quite obviously not possible to arrest every single person who happens to break the law. It is also not advisable for officers to do so. This means they must decide whether the person breaking the law is posing some threat to public safety.
Discretion in ticketing and arrests
Officers may fairly wide discretion when it comes to issuing traffic tickets and other non-serious citations. Their discretion is bound by some constraints, including soft or unspoken quotas. Still, they can decide to give some people warnings if they deem that this would be the most effective way to protect the public. Some complain that the use of discretion can lead to unfairness on the basis of race, gender, religion and the like. Others hold that this is an important function that ensures the law is not too rigid.
In addition, officers occasionally have discretion when it comes to who to arrest and how to do it. When a warrant for arrest is issued, there is no discretion involved. However, officers operating without a warrant must decide whether the complained of crime is enough to justify the arrest. For instance, a person who is drunk in public could be arrested, but some officers may choose to just put him in a cab and send him home. Likewise, discretion must be used in determining how much force is needed to bring a suspect into compliance.