Discretion is defined as the authority to make a decision between two or more choices (Pollock, 2010). More specifically, it is defined as “the capacity to identify and to document criminal and noncriminal events” (Boivin & Cordeau, 2011). Every police officer has a great deal of discretion concerning when to use their authority, power, persuasion, or force. Depending on how an officer sees their duty to society will determine an officer’s discretion. Discretion leads to selective enforcement practices and may result in discrimination against certain groups of people or select individuals (Young, 2011). Most police officer discretion is exercised in situations with individuals (Sherman, 1984).
Discrimination can lead to legal problems for an officer of the law. If discrimination due to an officer’s use of discretion results in a violation of due process it is a violation of the law (Young, 2010). Due process is the constitutionally mandated procedural steps designed to eliminate error in any governmental deprivation of liberty, life, or property (Pollock, 2010). One of the main concerns with using discretion is the possibility of it leading to a violation of due process by racial profiling.
Types of Negative Police Discretion
Racial profiling occurs when a police officer uses a “profile” as reasonable suspicion to stop a person with the intent to obtain consent to search their belongings (Pollock, 2010). These stops are usually traffic stops and the officer is looking to obtain consent to search the individual’s automobile. The “profile” used is based on race. In these cases, an officer is using their discretion to target minority groups because they believe they are involved in criminal activities. The concern with using this profile is that racial stereotyping of minority groups will lead police to crack down on minorities more than on other groups. While police see the action of racial profiling as a normal police tactic, minority groups see the actions as racist (Young, 2011).
Although most studies on police officer discretion is focused on racial profiling, it has also been shown that officers patrol hot spots. Hot spots are areas known to have a high rate of criminal activity. Focusing on hot spots is an officer’s discretion, because they are ignoring other areas that could potential produce criminal activities. All surveillance and enforcement efforts are focused on the “hot” area. Not only are officers ignoring other areas, but they have determined those areas are not as important as the hot spot. Hot spots can prove to be problematic if the criminal activity located in the hot spot before it was being patrolled is moved to a new location. The new location is prone to no police surveillance because all resources are focused on the old hot spot (Mastrofski, 2011).
Discretion and the Use of Force
Police have the uncontested right to use force when necessary to apprehend a suspect. If the...