What Is Police Discretion?

Christine Liddell, Jessica Schubert
  • Author
    Christine Liddell

    Christine Liddell graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Mining Engineering. She has tutored English and History, as well as STEM classes, such as Statics, Calculus, and Thermodynamics.

  • Instructor
    Jessica Schubert

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

Learn about the practice of police discretion and how police officers make decisions based on the best possible situational outcome. Read several examples of police discretion in use. Updated: 01/19/2022

Table of Contents


Police Discretion Examples

What is police discretion? The police discretion definition refers to the freedom of police officers to make decisions as they perform their official duties. There are many instances throughout a police officer's day-to-day work where they can decide how to respond to a situation using their own best judgement and wisdom rather than a strict law.

Officer discretion is a useful and necessary part of an officer's ability to do their job, as police officers must often make quick, in-the-moment decisions that cannot wait for specific laws to be consulted or reviewed. This does not mean that police officers can make unlawful decisions, but rather that they must use their knowledge of what is lawful and reasonable and what is unlawful and unreasonable to make appropriate decisions in stressful circumstances.

Police discretion examples include an officer's decision whether or not to draw their weapon, to make an arrest, to issue a traffic ticket, to perform a search on a suspect, or to stop and assist someone in need of help. There are advantages and disadvantages of police discretion, just like there are pros and cons of being a cop. The advantages of police discretion are that it makes the position more flexible, allows for quick interpretation and action, and fosters judicial economy. The disadvantages of police officer discretion are that it can escalate a situation or violate someone's rights if applied improperly.

Police officers are given the freedom to use police discretion and make decisions on the job and in the heat of the moment.

Swedish police officers

Discretion in Criminal Justice

Discretion in criminal justice is present at all levels of the system and in its bureaucracies. The various decisions that different participants in the legal system are allowed to make shows what forms discretion takes in criminal justice. Discretion is applied from the moment someone is arrested, when an officer uses their discretion to make the initial decision to arrest.

From there, once the supposed offender has been arrested, the prosecutor can use their discretion to chose to either bring charges against the offender or to dismiss them. It is up to the prosecutor's discretion to decide whether the offense was serious enough to spend valuable time, money, and resources in pursuing the punishment. Also, the prosecutor exercises their discretion to decide the severity of charges levied against the offender. The prosecutor can choose whether to attempt to charge someone with a felony or a misdemeanor, and can try to add on sentence enhancements as well.

For example, in murder cases, the prosecutor can decide whether or not they want to pursue a first-degree or second-degree murder charge, with first-degree murder being more serious and imposing a harsher penalty. Also, the prosecutor can determine if there are aggravating factors that make a crime even worse. An aggravating factor is an aspect of crime that increases an act's severity and culpability. In murder cases, an aggravating factor might include whether the defendant committed the crime in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner. The definition of especially heinous, however, is left up to the prosecutor's discretion. Conversely, the prosecutor can decide whether or not offer a plea bargain so that the defendant does not have to go to trial.

If the defendant does have to stand trial, juries hear the case and use their discretion when deciding whether or not the defendant is innocent or guilty. Although juries do have instructions, it is ultimately up to all twelve individuals to use their discretion when hearing a case and evaluating the facts.

Once the jury uses their discretion to render a verdict, the judge may use their discretion in sentencing. Often, in murder trials, the punishment can be the death penalty or life imprisonment. If the judge decides on life imprisonment, they can decide whether or not the convicted party will ever get the chance for parole, and after how many years they will be eligible for parole.

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Pros and Cons of Being a Cop

Police officers toe the thin blue line, the line between lawfulness and illegal acts. Acting as an intermediary between law and chaos can be stressful, and means that there are many pros and cons of being a cop.

The pros of being a cop include:

  • Police enjoy a high status and reputation in society, since policing is a well-respected position.
  • Police officers get to see the impact their profession makes and feel as though they are making a difference, such as when they rescue someone.
  • Policing is a very interesting job and the situations officers face change constantly.
  • Police officers earn above average wages and receive good retirement benefits and pensions at the end of their career.

There are also disadvantages to being a police officer, which include:

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is police discretion and when can it be used?

Police discretion is an officer's freedom to make decisions on the job. Police discretion is used while officers are performing their official day-to-day duties.

Why is discretion important in the criminal justice system?

Discretion is important in the criminal justice system because it fosters judicial economy. If officers had to ask permission from judges for every decision they were faced with, this would be inefficient and costly.

What are examples of police discretion?

An example of police discretion is when a car gets pulled over for speeding. The officer can use their discretion and decide whether or not to issue a ticket, issue a warning, or make an arrest.

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