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Police Discretion

What does the common person know about police discretion. We watch shows like Cops and Law & Order, which give us nice story lines, but no real facts. What does police discretion mean?

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Police discretion is an essential part of the job function of a police officer. Each day officers face decisions about arresting someone, letting them go with a citation or verbal warning. This discretion holds a great deal of power, a power that most police officers respect and never abuse.

In this article, police discretion will be looked at in-depth and 10 examples of police discretion will be given. These examples will then be used to show whether discretion was used in a reasonable fashion or was an abuse of power. With the badge, a person has an unbelievable amount of power. With this power also comes responsibility. Police officers are expected to know all the elements of laws, down to the tiniest detail. They have to know if the crime is a misdemeanor or felony and the only way of knowing that is knowing the elements of the law that has been broken.

Police officers must be aware of important case laws, such as the Terry frisk, Miranda warning and so forth. The choice to arrest or give a court summons is at the discretion of the police officer.

Police discretion is something a police officer faces every single day on the job and its one of the most important tools he or she has. This discretion simply boils down to whether an arrest can or should be made. Discretion is loosely defined as giving a person a choice of action and in police terms, a freedom to make that choice. This freedom gives the officer a chance to let someone go instead arresting them, cutting the wrongdoer a break and letting the person go home.

Examples of Police Discretion

  • Traffic Violation – Failed to stop at red light – An officer can use discretion on a driver who failed to stop at a red light. The driver might have missed the sign by accident or be unfamiliar with the area. As long as the officer detects no alcohol or narcotics, he or she can choose to let the driver off with a warning. This is a reasonable use of officer discretion as people do make mistakes and the officer realizes this.
  • Traffic Violation – Driving Under Influence (DUI) – An officer can choose to make an arrest in this situation or have the person call another person for a ride home and have the vehicle towed. This discretion is limited in a way, as the officer is understandably not allowed to let a person continue to drive home while intoxicated. This discretion is reasonable, as with both choices the threat someone will die that day or night has ended.
  • Domestic Violence – Police officers have some discretion when it comes to domestic violence. The choices are if the officer can see a visible mark on one of the two or more parties, the other person is arrested and in most states, it is a law. If both parties are equally involved in the violence then both parties are either arrested or told to separate for a time to allow the anger to dissipate.

If children are involved, one parent (usually the aggressor in the situation) will be removed for the time being, so that the children will not be handed over to Department of Human Resources (DHR) or Department of Children and Families (DCF).

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  1. ladybaby

    On April 20, 2009 at 8:51 am


    When discretion lies solely with the officer, he has far to much power and control to make a wrong decision. In middle class neighborhoods you may see good judgment on the part of officers, but go to the poor neighborhoods, and you will find a totally different type of discretion by officers. They go above the law all the time and abuse their power, but nothing is ever done about it, so they continue to get away with it. They view the poor as useless parasites, and they harrass and torment them. They are feared and hated by the poor, because they are the enemy instead of the protectors in those neighborhoods.

  2. Russell

    On January 8, 2010 at 10:05 pm


    ladybaby

    You are an idiot. Yes officers have a lot of power but they are in those positions to do good. They are the ones running into the situation when you are running away. They stand up for and defend your rights and safety by often placing their own in jeopardy. Anyone that volunteers for that job should be given a bit of discretion to assist them in doing what they believe is in the best interest of the public. Yes some officers do abuse their power but most do not. Yes some officers are abusive, but most are not. The same can be said about any other profession. Including yours I bet. I don’t see you out there.

  3. John

    On February 4, 2010 at 9:31 pm


    I agree with you russell You do not see lady baby out their defending and running to the scene when shots sre fired through hostile air. You have to give these police officers authority do do their job in an orderly manner. Discretion is giving to a police officer to keep he/she safe while on duty. Their are many things a police officer sees on a daily basis that makes them use extra force on an individual to bring them into custody

  4. Nick

    On April 13, 2010 at 4:13 pm


    Ok, first of all police officers don’t “volunteer”. It is a job that they get paid to do with the money collected from our taxes. And yes, some officers are abusive and some are not. And you’re so right, the same can be said about any other profession. But most other professionals don’t carry a gun on their hip. And I’m pretty sure when I was at school today and a teacher was abusing her power by kicking some students out of a computer lab before it was time for her class to start, I wasn’t worried about going to jail. And that is very mature of you to be calling names Russell. Grow up.

  5. Necee

    On April 29, 2010 at 1:02 am


    I do agree with all of you, sometimes people deal with the police in different situations some have been abused by the police, some have witnessed abuse by the police, some of you are the police. reguardless of what the situation is we have to have police in the world. I respect the ones that do there jobs correctly and I disagree with the ones that abuse there jobs we just need more police that want to help instead of hurt society, so everyone lets not point fingers and call names but pray that God keep the officers safe and that their hearts are right at all times also that they use good decretion.

  6. Eric

    On November 13, 2012 at 6:40 pm


    Ladybaby im sorry to inform you but more crime is commited in the poorer areas im guessing you live in one of those areas because why else would you complain. For instance would you feel safer in a very nice neighborhood and law care is provided for people and there is bus stops and you are right next to a school. Or would you feel safer where all the houses around you are trashed the area even smells different and all the neighbors have pitbulls and you hear a gun shot once a week. Dont tell me they pick on poor people thats insane.

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