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Stephanie Coleman
Criminal Justice 1010
November 15, 2016

Police Accountability and Discretion

The use of discretion and the subject of accountability regarding law enforcement has
been a concern since police departments were first produced. Police officers have a vast amount
of authority, and are armed. They also have the authorization to use force if necessary. Citizens
do have the right to be concerned about these matters, but with education will be able to
determine whether or not they agree police discretion is a necessity in law enforcement practices
of today. (Kelling, 1999) Interest in this topic arises from growing concerns of police violence
and misconduct. Allegations of the use of excessive force and deaths at the hands of officers
have also fueled debates across the United States.
With all of these issues combined our communities need to ask the question, should
officers of the law use discretion when dealing with those breaking laws? If so, who does
discretion benefit? This review will discuss topics encompassing the benefits and concerns
regarding the use of police discretion. These matters will include the arguments surrounding
issues of police abusing power when using discretion and that there is no uniform way for
officers to maintain consistency when making decisions on how to proceed using discretion.
Benefits of discretion would include officers being able to exercise good judgement and improve
police/community relationships with the use of discretion and being able to using discretion in a
time when enforcing all laws is impossible due to manpower restrictions among others.

Police Abuse of Power
By far the most blatant argument against discretion would be having this power gives
officers the chance to abuse it. What that means is, any pre-existing discrimination or prejudice
an officer may have will be part of their decision making process when using discretion. People
in our societies should all have equal rights and everyone should be treated in the exact same
way. However, discretion suggests that officers have the opportunity to misuse it by handling
offenders of different race, religion, gender, class insensitively. (Kleinig, 1996)
While we can all appreciate the value of officers there are also police actions which make
it impossible to question any of their tactics, use of force, and challenge and absence of
accountability in law enforcement without getting negative blow back. These actions in
themselves scare citizens and make them feel they are unable to question anything involving
police. (Steinburg, 2015)
Discretion Guidelines
The goal for officers using discretion is to train them to assess situations and respond
appropriately. However, this will not always be the case. An officer handling a hostage situation
may be able to negotiate with great skill but still lose a hostage in the process. Clear policies
should state the factors which officers must take into account when approaching situations.
Values should be set in order for officers to be guided in making their decisions. But, even in
doing so problems can and will occur. (Kelling, 1999)
Police have a very assorted set of responsibilities and goals. One main goal is to
maintain order by controlling low level misconduct and stopping possible short term violence.
To accomplish this, discretion will need to be used. There are times when offenders will need to
be arrested in order to maintain peace and removing an offender from an explosive situation will

give the desired results. In this type of setting where split decisions need to be made, police may
care about what happens before the conviction, but not the conviction itself or the consequences
for the defendant. (Gerstein & Prescott, 2015)
Officer/Community Relations
Citizens expect officers and organizations to act not only legally, but morally when
making decisions about how to handle offenders. Without these considerations, policing would
become ineffective in our societies. Officers have to use professional discretion on a daily basis
when deciding to make an arrest or not and protecting a community. This requires the officer to
be well trained and educated in order to make sound judgement calls. The decisions made
involve many elements including the seriousness of the offense, if an arrest will help to solve the
problem, if there are competing priorities for resources, and the accessibility of legal alternatives.
Officers can also take into account honest mistakes and feel the situation can be resolved by a
warning and release. The ethical duty of police goes far beyond just being legally compliant.
These duties show added actions which are intended to improve relations and police success in
communities. If police do not have the trust and support of their community, they cannot operate
effectively. (Couper, 2013)
An underlying belief is that a police department and the community it serves need to
reach an agreement on the values that direct the department when the used of discretion becomes
necessary. Those values, need to include the protection of life, and liberty of the individuals in
the community. At the same time, the values are needed in order to protect a peaceful and stable
society. An office must be familiar not only with the culture within the department, but the
culture within the community as well. (Principles of Good Policing: Avoiding Violence Between
Police and Citizens, 2003)

Selective Enforcement
It is impossible for police to enforce all laws that have been broken. Manpower is not
available in police departments to allow that to happen. Officers are required to make decisions
based on a variety of factors how exact laws will be enforced. Discretion allows an officer to not
make an arrest even if an offense has been committed and the evidence is right before him should
another action achieve the same desired goal. Discretion helps to depict officers as reasonable
men and women whose judgement is vital in deciding whether or not to use criminal process
while at the same time saving time and essential manpower. (Goldstein, 1963)
In conclusion we can see how discretion can be both beneficial and not to citizens, police,
and departments. There are many reasons to discuss both sides of this issue. Discretion is used
on all levels of law enforcement, but it starts with the police officer. He can and will make an
educated decision on whether or not to arrest, investigate, pull over, or cite an individual. He has
been trained to do so and is expected to act as judge and jury when necessary.
My personal belief is that discretion is necessary to officers and always has been.
Without discretion, our jails would be overcrowded and we wouldnt have enough officers to
answer calls that would take precedence over less important crimes and emergencies. Officers
have gone through training in the classroom and out in the field in order to learn how to handle
different situations and how to use discretion themselves. Their experiences in working
everyday on the street can also give them the education needed when the time comes to make
certain decisions regarding crimes and offenders. I myself trust officers will make the best
decisions they can to protect me as a citizen as well as their department.

Bronitt, S., & Stenning, P. (2011). Understanding Discretion in Modern Policing. Thomson
Couper, D. C. (2013, January 15). Making Choices: The Moral Aspects of Policing. Improving
Police, p. 2.
Gerstein, C., & Prescott, J. (2015). PROCESS COSTS AND POLICE DISCRETION. Harvard
Law Review, 268-288.
Goldstein, H. (1963). Police Discretion: The Ideal Versus the Real. Public Administration
Review, Vol. 23, 140-148.
Kelling, G. L. (1999). "Broken Windows" and Police Discretion. Washington: US Department of
Kleinig. (1996). Handled with Discretion: Ethical Issues in Police Decision Making. Lanham:
Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Principles of Good Policing: Avoiding Violence Between Police and Citizens. (2003, September).
Retrieved from
Steinburg, R. G. (2015). Police Power and the Scaring of America:. Yale Law and Policy Review,