Police Discretion as a Segment of Policing


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Police discretion is one of the most important segments of policing. It is penetrative and essential to the Criminal Justice System. It means the right of the police officers to have their own decisions, the right to put someone under arrest, and to enforce the law, but the most important role is to help people. So basically „Discretion is an unpredictable, powerful tool used by police in exercising their power to maintain social order in the society.” (Benbella, 2017). The basic of the police role is the capacity to use force. There are three ways to authorize the use of force. Firstly, it is for the reason of self-defence. Self-defence is a tricky question. Although governments have laws, declaring what self-defence is, it is not clearly defined. Secondly, it “entrusts the power to proceed coercively to some specifically deputized persons against some specifically named person” (Bittner, 1985). The third way is to institute a police force by legitimising the use of responsible force. No other role in society has this essentially unrestricted capacity, and this sets police apart from all other occupations. There are formal limitations, like using deadly force (which is mostly limited), or to perform their duties (not their own or other’s interests), or not using it maliciously and frivolously. Talking about using police force is really unclear for most of the people, that is why the society usually thinks about the using of minimum force. In this case, police intervention means using the capacity and authority to overpower resistance to an attempted solution to a problem. The uniqueness which policemen owns, requires a different way of thinking, a responsible approach, therefore they are mostly suspicious people in their private life as well as at work. They have to be aware of signs indicating an opportunity for breaking the law, commit a crime or violence. Because of this, it is not easy to become friends with members of the society, since norms of friendship affects others at work, which isolates police officers from the community. These days there are a global trend on increased number of Body-Worn Police Cameras, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it gives the society the power to „supervise” the work of the policeman, but on the other hand, public has a misunderstanding what police discretion means and how it works. So, is this a good thing after all?

To make sure to understand this topic, we have to define what exactly discretion and police discretion means. In the late 1960s and the 1970s research started about the question discretion, before this time it was not really acknowledged that it exists at all. Discretionary actions are those that are within legal or rightful authority, so in this meaning police discretion belongs to limited authority, which is a result of action or inaction. Although a lot of studies are dealing with it, there is no one precise meaning of it. Discretion is found both in the actions of police officers as well as their lack of action (Nickels, 2007). Criminal justice system consists of a huge number of discretionary decisions. It has to decide whether to arrest, to prosecute or to imprison people. Police officers’ decision making could be outstandingly essential according to Walker (1993), because police officers may detain citizens without formally arresting them and victims could be encouraged or discouraged by police officers from pressing charges. When an officer arrests a suspect, the criminal proceedings begins, and they often have a large role in decision making, if the defendant is convicted or indicted (Kleinig, 1996). In this meaning, police discretion can be extremely harmful, if it discriminates improperly. This essay is not dealing with the question of treating minority groups differently, although most people would agree with the statement, that racial factors have a huge effect in abusing the police discretion (Lyons, 2005), which is an extraordinarily sad thing. Most discretionary decisions are intuitive, and reflects to influences which request out-of-the-box thinking about values, so it is not easy for a police officer to separate these three elements by himself (Davis, 1971). Four distinct types of calls for police intervention based upon two factors: initiation of the call and function of the call. The four kinds of discretionary situations are: law enforcement or order maintenance, and whether the police response is police-invoked or citizen-invoked. In police-invoked law enforcement situations the police themselves starts the action in the specific topic, but in some cases, this is a reaction for a public concern, whatever action they take is on their own authority. This means the officer is the complaining witness, if an arrest has been made. In citizen-invoked law enforcement there is a victim, who complains about the situation, that somebody broke the law. In police-invoked order maintenance situations police officers’ acts in their own, when they experience an actual or potential disorder. In citizen-invoked order maintenance situations citizens are calling for help because of a private or public disorder (Wilson, 1968).

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To talk about police discretion, we need to have policemen, who can act in different cases. It is really important to realize, that they are people as well as the others in the society. For this, Skolnick (1966) gives us some help in his work, called a policeman’s “working personality”. As long as they have an extremely responsible job, they experience a lot of pressure. By developing their personality, they getting to used to danger and authority, which can cause a constant stress, to work as effectively as they can. The society has a lot of expectations about how a policeman has to behave, because they have to be a good example for the people: officers should not be drunk, have to be helpful, follow the law and immediately respond to assaults and properties (Skolnick, 1966). Policemen are specifically trained for handling danger and authority, be suspicious, they have to face with social isolation, although they have to keep solidarity and humanity. Like any other uniformed organization, officers are more likely attractive for potential violence. Because of this, they became more and more suspicious. As they have a quite huge authority, it reinforces the element of danger, when they are potentially socially isolated. Social isolation is a really negative thing, which belong with this work. They are so aware of surroundings, that they isolate themselves from social groups where they originally belong to. According to this, it is not necessarily unequivocal, that wearing BWCs are helpful for the relations between them and the society, or just getting it worse.

To investigate the problem of BWCs, first of all, we have to discuss the relationship between the police and the society, because it can gravely change the situation. If police and the locals have a good relationship, if the work of the police is closer to policing than to the traditional work of the police, it can help a lot. Let us see some pros and contras about the topic. Regarding to Tony Farrar (2013), „People act differently when they know they are being filmed – police body cameras can encourage good behaviour by police officers and members of the public, leading to a decrease in violence, use of force incidents, and attacks on officers on duty.” So that means, Body-Worn Cameras (BWC) can make a good impact on the relationship. On both sides, it can decrease aggression and the use of force. As an example, a research in San Diego, California corroborates this statement. In the report a good relation between use of BWC and using police force can be found. The use of body cameras harmonised with a 16.4% decrease in using pepper spray, tasers or firearms, which belongs to high-level use of force. Speaking of controlled holds and taser warnings, called low-level use of force, a 25.3% increase was visible (Garrick, 2017). Sometimes the press and the society targets police and police officers with false statements. In these cases, BWCs are the best tool to clarify what really happened. For example, in the United States, in Phoenix, Arizona, the number of false prosecutions towards the police decreased 53.1% after the deployment of body cameras. (Katz, 2014). If we are talking about BWC, we have to mention, that cameras could have serious negative effects too. There are technical as well as social problems with them. A report by the UK Home Office noted some dilemmas. The cameras can cause neck or head injuries, a weak or disappeared signal could be experiencing when cameras and radios are too close to each other, or there is a potential risk to get an electric shock if the device went wrong. (Goodall, 2007). At this point it is important to note that there was a technical revolution since 2007, so a lot of these problems can be solved with modern equipment, which are nowadays not too expensive. In general, most of the people does not like surveillance. Therefore, many of them acts very different while they being caught on camera. By that not just thinking about the police officers, but about the people on the other side too. According to statistics, assaults on police officers increased by 14% when using BWCs (Ariel, 2016).

The use of BWCs increased the number of the arrests implemented by police officers. „To other observers, the placement of BWCs on officers may reduce officer willingness to engage proactive policing tactics and lead to “de-policing” in high crime areas that need police attention” (Zimmerman, 2019). So basically, he states that the use of police worn cameras reduce the effectiveness of „policing” strategies, therefore reduces police discretion. This could lead to a remote-controlled police system, where officers have no right to make decisions, and this can be very harmful. The trust of the citizens grows when they see that police tries to use policing strategies, that their officers are a part of the community. Besides that, public trust is a very fragile thing. Just a few negative examples are enough to destroy the trust of the civilians towards the police. Sadly, for most of the people the misbehaviour of one person is enough to judge hundred others in a wrong way. Although the other side of this coin is that the brutality and abusive behaviour of the police officers in the United States were revealed thanks to the BWC program. But are not there some cheaper, and more human ways to decrease the number of police brutality? In many countries, they founded programs (for example in Scandinavian countries) that could change the relationship between the police and civilians. Right now, in western countries there are a big trust crisis towards the police officers. This can be seen from the Public Attitude Survey: „[…] Members of the public are generally in favour of the use of body-worn cameras with 92% agreeing that the cameras would ‘make officers more accountable,’ 90% agreeing that cameras ‘would ensure officers act within the law,’ and 87% agreeing that cameras would ‘reassure them the police will do the right thing.’ (Grossmith, 2015). In this meaning most of the people does not think in the favour of police officers. They have trust issues, and thinks that without control and surveillance, police „would not act within the law”, or „would not do the right thing”. Most of the people have no idea that cameras are important to protect the police officers too, or to learn from the footages. If this statement is right and declares the problem well, it means only technological solutions cannot solve the problem on long-time period. With social programs the trust of the civils can be recovered, and they can feel themselves closer to police.

If we assume that the most important part of Body-Worn Cameras is to monitor the officers, and to control them, all of the negative effects above will come to life. If the public wants police to „make the right choices”, it means that there will be a strong pressure on police departments from the public and the press. As mentioned before, the society misunderstand a lot of times how the police and police discretion have to work. This means people, who are not professionals in the field of police work, can make an impact on how the police works. This causes greater pressure on the police system, therefore greater pressure on police officers in the everydays. This is the point when the statement of Gregory Zimmermann becomes more important. If police officers are aware that someone constantly supervises them, they may become more stressed, be likely to make mistakes more often, which mistakes will be seen by basically anyone who has an interest in it. And from this point on, the process will become self-generated and quickly getting worse. The only option that policemen will have is to strictly follow the orders and „recommendations” from above. This phenomenon could decrease the importance of policing at all, and more specifically police discretion. This is a longer-term process, then it seems from this writing, but I think that in time, Body-Worn Police Cameras will make great harm to police discretion and to the moral of the policemen too. In addition to that, there are countries, where it is hard to maintain the number of the policemen. For example, in Hungary there are lesser and lesser policemen in every year. If we put this extra weight on them too, this situation would be just worse. Thinking in a really pessimistic way, if it is going to be like this, in the end, police will become vulnerable to society, to press, and they work will be less human.

Police and discretion are two expressions, which have to be hand in hand. Police officers and the whole system is based on discretion, it is essential to have both in a community. It is true, that this topic has a lot of difficulties, not just from the community side, but the police side as well. Use of force was always necessary in some cases and from my point of view, it will be necessary in the future too. It is easier to understand police discretion if we have an example, that is why BWCs get an important role in this essay. The problem of the Body-Worn Cameras is a difficult one. The society will feel better when using BWCs, because they have the feeling that they can control police more. It could be really helpful in trials too, because video tapes are great evidences, there we could see what and how the incident happened. But this control is not too healthy for police system and police discretion or for the police officers. On the other hand, it could be harmful as well, because there are some evidences, proving both policemen and members of the society could ask strange, when they know they are filmed. For this kind of problems, I think social programs could achieve greater results, and would make less to none harm in the relationship between the police officers and the society at all. Nonetheless further researches have to take place in the topic, to see the long time period effects of BWCs, and to see the impact of it.

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