Police Discretion: Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons

Police Discretion: Definition, Examples, Pros & Cons
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  • 0:02 Police Discretion
  • 1:19 Examples
  • 2:39 Pros and Cons
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn what constitutes police discretion. Examine several examples of police discretion and review the pros and cons to understand why people are for and against the use of police discretion.

Definition of Police Discretion

The phrase the thin blue line is often associated with the police. It means that police in their blue uniforms often act as a line between lawfulness and illegal acts. A 'thin blue line' also exists with police discretion. In this case, police are given discretion, or freedom to decide, on the job to make decisions, but there is a 'thin blue line' that the police cannot cross or they will be in violation of the law.

When the police perform their official duties, there is a certain level of discretion they must use. Many times, a police officer is alone when performing his work, so situations arise where discretion must come into play. Consequently, the police officer must decide on his own in the particular moment what to do.

The following are the types of decisions that might require a police officer to use his own discretion; this is not an exhaustive list, it is just illustrative to give you a sense of when an officer can use his own discretion.

  • whether to draw his weapon
  • whether to make an arrest
  • whether to issue a traffic ticket or other violation
  • whether to shoot a gun
  • whether to perform a search
  • whether to stop and assist someone

Examples of Police Discretion

Let's look at some examples of when a police officer must use his or her discretion. Imagine that Officer Bob is on patrol when he notices that an automobile is driving in the rain without its lights on, which is against the law in the state. Officer Bob pulls the car over and requests the driver's license and registration. Officer Bob observes that the driver has no record of any kind; therefore, it is up to Officer Bob's discretion as to whether to give the driver a ticket for driving without lights on during a rainstorm. Officer Bob decides simply to warn the driver in this instance. He uses his own discretion to make this decision.

Now let's look at another example. Imagine that Officer Bob is on patrol in an area known for drug trafficking. Officer Bob receives a dispatch alert that there is a suspect on foot in the area who just held up a bank. Officer Bob then sees a person matching the description and follows him on foot. He notices that the person is carrying a gun. Officer Bob sees the person assault a passerby and must now use his discretion to decide whether he will intervene and possibly draw and use his weapon, or call for back up assistance. Officer Bob decides to intervene. He draws his weapon and orders the suspect to freeze. The suspect obeys, and Officer Bob makes an arrest.

Pros and Cons of Police Discretion

There are various reasons why the use of police discretion is a positive aspect of a police officer's position. The use of discretion allows the police officer the flexibility necessary to perform his job. It also allows the police officer to quickly interpret the applicable statutory law and then act upon the determination. In other words, the statute may indicate that a certain act is illegal; the police officer can then expeditiously make an arrest based upon his interpretation. Furthermore, the use of discretion helps to foster police and judicial economy. If the police had to consult with other officers or go to a judge every time they needed to make an on-the-job determination, this would result in a drain not only on the economy but also on the overall law enforcement and judicial systems.

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