Police Discretion And The Various Control Mechanisms In Place

This paper explains police discretion and the various control mechanisms in place. Police discretion basically means the ability of police officers to make decisions based on the doctrines of courses of the actions.   It entails the powers given to police officers that enable them to make judgments based on their own thinking and reasoning of the issues at hand, it enables the police to choose on whether they should apply the provided police procedures or give warnings to an individual for violating the laws of the state (Bronnit & Stenning, 2011). It is an important aspect concerning criminal justice, and has raised dilemma between enforcement of laws to the latter and the spirit of the law. During their trainings, police officers are provided with different scenarios showing what they will expect while performing their duties, but since the provided situations are not exhaustive, the police always encounter different situations that need their personal decisions to solve the problems.

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Another factor that forces the police to use discretion is when the laws are being amended, forcing the police to use discretion in the meantime, while waiting for the amendments of the laws. Other options are when the provided laws are ambiguous forcing the officers to disregard the interpretations of the laws and make use of their own reasoning capacities. The discretions are always used by the police when they are presented with many options and are left with choosing the best options with regard to the condition and situations at hand (Bronnit & Stenning, 2011). It however important to note that police officers are mandated to use discretion as the last options available, and it is bound by various norms like professionalism, social, legal and moral standards. Other police departments limit the use of discretion or try to eliminate it by all means.

Origin of police discretion

In earlier days, nobody knew the existence of police discretion, when police offices came across a violation of the law, they had no other options but to arrest the offenders or make citations. Prosecutors would then take legal action on the cases to the final limit of the law, while judges handed fixed sentences that were same to all the offenders irrespective of the nature and condition of the crimes. This was because of the fact that discretion was illegal at the time in the criminal justice systems (Glowatski, 2013).

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The use of discretion came into existence in 1956, as a result of police departments appreciating that police work was at times tough, and police officers would encounter situations that required them to use their own judgments to solve situations at hand. It was also discovered that the use of discretion by the police officers provided a source of motivation and job satisfaction. It also helped in creating more efficiency in the criminal justice systems.

Common incidents where police discretion is used

Police discretion can be used in different circumstances, and that each situation has different application of discretion. One of them is solving disputes concerning domestic violence where there is no obvious evidence of physical abuse. Therefore the police officers might be forced to use their own judgments in solving the disputes. Another example is that of traffic violations, other people speed accidentally and the police officers may decide to give other people warnings as long as they give an assurance that they will not repeat the same mistake again (Schulenberg, 2015). Police officers also have to use their own discretions in determining if some crimes have some elements of hate in them, which the police have to judge using the characters of the perpetrators of the crime. Other cases involves crimes committed by people with mental problems, the police might be forced to either drop the investigations process or give lighter punishments given to the offenders.

Variables of discretion

Police discretion can be categorized in several factors; the first one is offenders’ variables, which entails those aspects linked directly to the offender, like age, gender and health status. These aspects may lead to the police officers sympathizing with the offender and instead offer advises on importance of following the provided laws, an example can be that of a very elderly person driving on the wrong side of the road (Bronitt & Stenning, 2011). The other category is the situational variables, which includes factors like the nature of the offence, properties involved in the crime, how the investigations were conducted and initiated by who and the seriousness of the crime committed. The presence of witnesses or the media when an offence was committed also influences the aspect of police discretion.

The other category is systems variables, which includes all the factors in the systems of a given society that have to be considered by the police before deciding to use discretion. For example, the police may be lenient to the offenders when the courts become congested, and may be strict to the offenders when the state needs to collect more revenues from charging fines to the offenders (Bronitt & Stenning, 2011). The other fact is that, communities with more resources may promote the aspect of the police using other options of punishments like imposing fines than the underprivileged communities. This will on other hand influence the use of discretions by the police.

The other influence to police discretion is organizational variables, which include policies in the police departments and their organizational cultures. The policies have written guidelines on the limits of discretion powers by the police officers. It provides accountabilities and transparency in the department since it provides documentations on the conducts of the officers concerning discretion (DeAngelo & McCannon, 2015). The final category is environmental variables, which is explained from the sense that different communities have different policies for running and managing the regions. For example, a region might have tough regulation concerning speed limits while others do not consider that as serious offences. This will influence the manner in which the police officers will use discretion.

Negative impacts of police discretion

The negative impacts arise due to the abuse of the powers of discretion by the police officers. Since police officers are trained to use their discretions in accordance to the perceived statistics, it can lead to incidences of racial profiling. This is explained form the fact some communities or people from a specific race are always perceived of having high probabilities of committing crimes in the society. This is illegal but since it is mostly used as discretion, it is difficult to provide the evidences in court (Legrand & Bronitt, 2012). It has been recorded in many incidences that, discretion has led to partialities when handling people from different backgrounds. It has also encouraged the vice of corruption in the society, this is explained from the fact the offenders may develop the habit of committing an offence and are not arrested by the police because they have developed ways of bribing the police officers.

Sometimes, the police officers lack the knowledge of the consequences of their actions when handling discretion. Police discretion, like the application of excessive force to the offenders might lead to abuse of the discretion powers and cause death or injuries to those affected during the process. The other point is that the decision made by the police may be driven by irrational and personal factors, which may not be guided by morals and ethics, and may finally end up causing more harm than good to those involved in the process. The other aspect is that the police officers might view a given crime from different perspectives, according their individual attributes and cultural backgrounds (Slothower, 2014). Others might view a certain crime as normal and not that serious hence giving the offenders simple warning instead of severe punishments. Police officers supporting racism might take advantage of discretion powers and arrest crime offenders on the basis of their ethnicities and not considering other factors.

Positive impacts of the use of police discretion

Good implementation and use of police discretion by the police officers promotes a positive image of the police department. It promotes good police- community relations hence ensuring that there is effective communications and interactions between the police and the communities in which the police officers serve. This aspect helps to reduce the rates of crimes in the society since the members of the community will be willing to give out any essential information that might assist the police in reducing crimes (Glowatski, 2013). It also allows the police officers to treat people in a humane manner, by giving the offender warnings upon the assurances that they will not repeat the offences again. The other essential impact is that the discretion promotes the formation of policies and goals that are realistic in a given society. This is explained from the sense that police officers sometimes encounter situations that need the application of personal judgments in solving problems in the community.

For efficiency to be achieved in the criminal justice systems, the principle of police discretion has to be fully utilized. This is because of the fact that, if the police officers were mandated to strictly follow the provided laws to the end, the court systems will be presented with too many cases which might lead to decreased delivery of the services offered by the judges and magistrates due to the overwhelming number of cases (Schulenberg, 2015). Discretion also promotes autonomy in the society since both the police and the community are not limited to the provisions in the written laws only. It is also a form of motivations to the police officers and can contribute to one having satisfaction in one’s roles and responsibilities, since they are allowed to exercise the powers as provided by the law.

Controlling police discretion

There is no maximum control of discretion in a given society since it is an inevitable aspect in the criminal justice systems. Maximum control of discretion means that the police officers are required to adhere to the provided laws to the latter in all the situations they encounter. This will lead to poor relations between the police and the communities they serve, making it more difficult for the police to work under such environments. However, specific problems requiring the use of discretions will necessitate the application of some control mechanisms like internal and external control mechanisms, legal controls and controls by the courts and citizens.

Internal control mechanisms

The police department should be able to come up with policies and laws that are aimed at limiting the use of discretion by the police officers. It should also ensure that officers are supervised to ascertain that they are not misusing the privileges of discretion powers. There should be policies and measures in place that regulate the use of excessive force when handling crimes in the society. This will reduce the number of innocent people killed while the police are using excess force and powers in reducing crimes (Bronitt & Stenning, 2011). The police departments should provide adequate trainings to the police officers, since for one to be able to make ethical and moral discretion, they have to get enough knowledge and understandings concerning the consequences of the discretions. Therefore, the police officers should be well educated and have enough legal knowledge.

Legal controls

Through the provision of legislations, like the use of zero tolerance law, there is a reduction on the use of discretion by the police. The laws are formed to target areas that are prone to police discretions like domestic violence, traffic offences and firearms crimes. Laws that guide domestic disputes that do not seem to have elements of violence require that the spouses separate for some time till their tempers cool down and help them make informed choices. This reduces the chances of police officers using their own opinions in solving the disputes (DeAngelo & McCannon, 2015). The police officers should have adequate legal knowledge that will assist them in making quick decisions that are moral and ethical when solving problems in the community. Therefore their intelligence have to be tested and approved by the police department since they have high level of authorities and can have impacts on the lives of other people in the community. Since police officers use their own judgments in discretion, it can be influenced by many factors like level of education and mental health. It has been noted that there is less use of excessive force and discretion among the educated police officers compared to the less educated.

Control by the courts

The police officers should not be allowed to use discretion in a manner that invokes the criminal law. This is enhanced by ensuring that police officers operate in atmospheres that encourages and guides them to invoke neutrally all criminal laws within the boundaries of full enforcements (Bronitt & Stenning, 2011). The courts should invoke such laws that are deemed to allow excessive use of force and misuse of the powers of discretion by the police officers. Tagging on that, police officers found guilty of any misconduct have to be held accountable of their deeds in a responsible and transparent manner. It should render fair trials and judgments to all the officers violating the laws irrespective of their ranks in the police departments.

Control by the citizens

Through community policing, the police officers should be able to work closely with the members of the community to identify and solve crime and other related problems in the community. With the good-community relations, the members of the community will be able to report any criminal cases to the police, and the police on the other hand will react proactively to the problems raised in the community (Legrand & Bronitt, 2012). This will reduce the level of criminal offences in the community and the chances of police officers using discretion. The members of the community have the responsibility of reporting the conducts of the police officers who serve them, with the aim of ensuring that they are using the powers of discretion as required of them.


            Upon looking at all aspects of discretion, right from its origin, to its merits and demerits in the police department, it is evident that police discretion is an inevitable part of policing since it is essential in all facets of police department. However, control mechanisms have to be put in place to ensure that the powers of discretion are not abused, and that they will benefit both the police officers and the communities in which they serve (Bronitt & Stenning, 2011). The use of discretion does not have to be eradicated but rather be limited, since the police might take advantage of the powers and use it to the disadvantage of the people, like the use of excessive force. Therefore, the author of this paper supports the opinion that discretion be encouraged by all criminal justice systems as long as they are well regulated and controlled.

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