The Pros and Cons of Police Discretion

Drawing the line between the appropriate functions of discretion among members of the police force remains to be an important component of policing. With the discovery of police discretion, there had been different debates as to its importance and hindrance in the application of law within communities. Many arguments have been placed as a result of such discovery and have prompted different set of opinions and views concerning its continued practice.
In the end, by actively enforcing the needs of accountability and the synchronization of processes, the process of discretion can be minimized or limited at a certain extent wherein it is due compliant with the rule of law and objective in nature. The way policing has been practiced in the realms of law enforcement has spurred an enhanced approach in the dealing with crime prevention and maintenance of peace and security within a particular community. However, the subjectivity of interpretation among police officers when it comes to exercising discretion has resulted in various criticisms since its discovery.
Due to this, there had been clamors for the abolishment and the promotion of its control. The paper seeks to showcase the relative pros and cons of police discretion. By showcasing its relative strengths and weaknesses, it exposes the reality behind the subjectivity and bias of such actions. Realizing such scenario, there is a need for a redefinition and structuring of police objectives that will ensure the application of the rules and laws while at the same time ensuring that police discretion is rooted on objectivity and accountability.

Defining Discretion Before dwelling deeper in the relative strengths and weaknesses of police discretion, it is first important to emphasize on its meaning and its relationship with the police practice. By properly defining the term ‘discretion’, it may be proper to link it to the police practice since such term is associated with different meanings. Linking it with policing objectives, the term ‘discretion’ must actively partake and coincide with (1) judgment, (2) choice, (3) discernment, (4) liberty and (5) license (APSU, 2001).
Seeing such, ‘discretion’ means the freedom in making choices responsibly under the circumstances aforementioned. “Discretion designates power or freedom to judge and decide what needs to be done in a particular situation” (Seri, p. 2). Establishing parameters and causes Also before elaborating on the strengths and weaknesses of police discretion, it is also proper to point out the relative causes of such concept and how it has cultivated the development of such practice. Determining such parameters, one must look at the variables or factors that enhance police judgments and leads them to practice discretion.
Examples include (1) offender variables, (2) situation variables, and (3) system variables (APSU, 2001). Under the element of offender variables, the practice of subjectivity and prejudice somehow are manifested in the practice of law enforcement. “Gender and mental health status affect how police handle many incidents” (APSU, 2001). Such issue only brings about unequal practice and in the facilitation of sanctions and punishments for different violations. Another important variable involves the situation where the police enforces and uses discretion.
It is in this situation that the priority is given on things that are unimportant rather than the actual case (APSU, 2001). This lack of logical judgment on what matters most often results in a biased and inaccurate results. Lastly, the system in a society also serves as an important and tool for the practice of discretion among the police force. The actual practice of discretion is dependent on the current situations that a system might be facing. Such system in relationship with discretion varies, that is why such practice also is different depending on the particular situation.
(APSU, 2001) Positive Outcomes After the discussion concerning its definition and relative parameters and causes, the paper will highlight the positive outcomes of police discretion. One important outcome of the issue is that it legitimizes the role of the police not only as the protector of laws but at the same time they are given the interpreting power to analyze situations. “The police enjoy innumerable opportunities for discretionary judgment and wider margins of discretion than any other sector within the state apparatus” (Seri, p. 3).
Another important outcome of the said practice is that it creates a different aura for the police force that practice discretion. The creation of laws are only relevant if they are ought to be enforced and practiced. “Their discretionary power allows police officers to transform the spirit of laws. With their interpretation of a particular issue, there is a legitimization of its overall hold of a particular society in creating control” (Seri, p. 3) The practice of discretion also improves the way police enforces the rules and regulations stipulated by the law.
Since they serve as the executor and protector of such laws, they are expected to address every challenges and hurdles given to them. “Like other “street level bureaucrats”, police officers must adapt to law and norms on specific situations, deciding on the extent which legal policy extend reflects the original law on the books” (Seri, p. 3). Lastly, the practice of police discretion is an important factor of police power and the maintenance of its hold and grasp of people within a particular community.
The concept of discretion in itself is creating the determination of who are good and law-abiding citizens and who are criminals (Seri, p. 4). Such power remains to be vital in the overall functions of police practice. Negative Consequences Given the positive influences that police discretion creates, there are also implications in such practice. One important consequence is the relative abuse of power among police officers in the issue of discretion. Such actions often emanates on both the extremity and unequal judgment given by authorities.
“The exercise of police discretion to stop, search, arrest or charge suspects is now regarded as inevitable and not necessarily improper, given the limits of police resources, variations in the seriousness of offending behaviours and the inappropriateness of criminal law for dealing with some situations of conflict and disorder” (Bergen, 2005, p. 127). In addition, there seems to be a lapse and undue changing of laws that somehow have been an effect of irresponsible police discretion.
Prior to its original function of responsible practice under the basis of laws, there is now a scenario that challenges the foundation of accountability and laws. “Discretion allows the police to challenge mechanisms of accountability and to erode the laws and rules that they are required to enforce, in part because of the proactive character of policing and the limited, retroactive character of accountability” (Seri, p. 4) Such misuse can create different problematic instances in the realm of law enforcement.
The practice of discretion is often times biased and prejudiced upon citizens and results in a negative impression and simplification among races and ethnicity in society. There are “instances of police stereotyping, harassment and breaches of basic human rights” (Bergen, 2005, p. 127-128). Controlling Police Discretion Given the relative importance and challenges brought about by the issue of police discretion, there needs to be a controlling mechanism that will seek to prevent the misuse and abuse of power by police. By controlling such concept, the process becomes objective, justified, fair and equal.
The last part of the paper seeks to showcase several approaches in creating a fair avenue for police discretion while at the same time addressing the individual needs of citizens as far as safety and security is concerned. One important realization is that police will continue to use discretion. (Kelling, 1999, p. 38). But in this setup, instead of creating an avenue for unjust and subjective interpretations, the manner in which it shall be applied should be dependent on a basis; laws and regulations in a particular state.
Doing such actions can help enhance and prevent the process of bias and prejudice in apprehending alleged violators. Another vital criterion that can be exhausted in the process is the creation of rules and standards on as to how police practice discretion. Such feat may prove to be difficult in nature due to its relatively varied and diverse situations; however by making standards and rules, there can be a synchronized way of facilitating and improving the practice of discretion. It is a practice that is characterized as fair and equal treatment among different people.
Moreover, there needs to be continued training and development among police officers concerning amendments and changes in laws. Being familiar with such tenets can help prevent the occurrence of abuse and misuse of power. By actively cooperating among the citizenry and the academy, policemen/women can have a fair advantage and at the same time understanding within the community. (Kelling, 1999, p. 41). Accountability is the one often undermined and stepped on when police misuse their discretion.
That is why, there needs to be a constant effort to enhance accountability while preserving the ability of the police to practice discretion. There needs to be an establishment of “accountability standards that identify competent and/or excellent performance violations of organizational rules, and incompetent and uncaring work, including performance with organizational rules” (Kelling, 1999, p. 38). Conclusions Indeed police discretion poses both positive and negative consequences in the community and society.
On a high note, its importance in the practice of enforcement can clearly be seen. However, due to its uncontrolled state, it often leads to abuse and misuse among members of the police force. In the end, there is a need to control the practice of police discretion by placing and putting accountability and other important standards that can help prevent bias and subjectivity. In the end, after all such efforts had been made it still boils down to one common theme; the protection and maintenance of security among member of the community and society.

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