Ways to Control Police Discretion


Discretion in law enforcement has been viewed by many as both a gift and a curse. On one hand, it may enable an individual to avoid paying a hefty speeding ticket, and on the other, discretion may allow spousal abuse to continue unabated. The proper education of police officers, changing attitudes of private citizens, and greater oversight by higher echelons of law enforcement are means of controlling discretionary acts.

Eliminating Discretion

  • The simplest means of controlling police discretion is to eliminate it entirely. This strategy was recommended in the original 1956 American Bar Association study that "discovered" discretion in all facets of law enforcement. Committee member Joseph Goldstein advocated eliminating a police officer's discretion to make an arrest, stating that any violation of the law should be subject to a doctrine of full enforcement. This strategy, he reasoned, would eliminate the possibility of police whims impacting the enforcement of law.

Private Citizens and Discretion

  • An individual's attitude and cooperation with an investigating officer can have a great influence on police discretion. This is particularly true of minor traffic offenses which carry the greatest leeway for a police officer to use written or verbal warnings over assigning a fine to the driver. Police discretion in this case is known as "discretion-as-choice," where an officer chooses to make a judgment call based on situational variables such as (in the case of a traffic stop) the age of the driver, the driver's positive attitude and willingness to cooperate.

Educating Police Officers

  • Many departments now require education on police discretion as part of the law enforcement training process. This allows new officers to understand that discretion is in many ways a "necessary evil" and that no case will be a simple matter of black and white facts. Candidates learn the varieties and causes of discretion as part of the belief that knowledge is the best means of controlling the use of discretion in the field.

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  • Photo Credit street cop image by Aaron Kohr from Fotolia.com
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