In this essay a discussion will be explored about the benefits and problems associated with police use of discretion. Which current policing strategies have the most potential for controlling officer discretion and providing accountability, and which have the least, and why is that the case? And finally, how might these issues impact the various concerns facing law enforcement today?
Police behavior is different across all communities. In fact, how police react to combat crime is affected by the management style of the various police administrators. Also, local politics will have a strong influence on how police react to crime. When police respond to a call, they will make a determination of the “cost and benefits” of their reaction. How they decide to intervene is based on the net gain to the neighborhood, suspect and the officer himself (Wilson, 1969). There have been several efforts to understand how police use discretion in their day-today operations. One of the difficulties in understanding police discretion, is when an officer makes a determination not to invoke the law, that decision is often not seen by anyone who would oversight over that officers decision, therefore that decision is usually not subject to review from any authority (Wilson, 1969). Police records are usually to incomplete to allow evaluation of non-enforcement decisions (Goldstein, 1960) Full enforcement of the law is not possible due to various reasons, a limitation of officer time, and a limitation of investigative devices. In some instances the police may choose not to enforce the law in order to allow a confidential informant to gather information on another suspect. This is an exchange relationship where both parties have the opportunity to gain some benefits by their interaction (Cole, 1970). While serving as a confidential informant the subject is allowed to continue to engage in criminal activity. Without this network of informers, it would be difficult to capture users, possessors and sellers of illegal drugs. In this circumstance police discretion has a net positive effect.
When and how officers use discretion is not always seen in a positive light by some members of the community; for example some officers feel that an assault between two blacks is an acceptable way for them to handle disputes, therefore there would be no need to invoke the criminal process (Goldstein, 1960). An officer’s negative appraisal of minorities is one of the reasons they are so over-represented in the criminal justice system. If officers are making the decision not to invoke the criminal process when dealing with white upper class males, but in most cases invoking the criminal process when dealing with members of the minority community, that is a violation of due process. In that case, the net affect of police discretion is negative.
One important work which highlighted some of the shortcomings of officer discretion was a survey sponsored by the American Bar Foundation....