Police Discretion Abstact Each Day,

, Skolnick and Fyfe, and Walker, that conclude racial discrimination has been found in several policing duties, facilitated by police discretion, including shootings, use of force, arrests, street stops, offense charging, search and seizure, and equality of coverage. Police discretion allows for this discrimination to occur.

Skogan and Frydl (2004) concur that police discretion is an increased concern, in relation to racial profiling and discrimination. The authors surmise that pro-active special units often make street stops and searches, in location oriented patrols of high crime areas. This results in the civil liberties of innocent citizens often being impinged upon, due to the officers misuse of their discretion in this strategy. This further gives rise to the mistrust of officers, among the greater community.

Authors Positions – Which Agree and Which Disagree:

Bayley and Nixon (2010) discuss police discretion in regards to its effects on racial discrimination and continuing concerns regarding accountability in law enforcement. They do not offer a direct opinion regarding discretions benefits or disadvantages, other than the fact that it can be used to foster these concerns. Klockstars (1980) would agree that police use of discretion can foster certain concerns of misuse; however, Klockstars would also surmise that the strategies police must use to do their job effectively and keep themselves safe, are the catalysts to the misuse of police discretion.

In contrast, Skogan and Frydl (2004) see police discretion as both a benefit and a disadvantage to society. They theorize that because of the vague nature of an officers directives, coupled with often competing responsibilities, only through discretion can they perform their jobs effectively. However, in instances where policing strategies, such as specialized units, are used, this discretion can have a tendency to be misused, are perceived as being misused, as is the case of racial profiling.

Wilson (1968) would concur with Skogan and Frydl (2004). Not only is discretion necessary to put into use vague mandates, but also discretion needs to be used with the competing, and sometimes conflicting, interests in a situation. This is demonstrated, by Wilson, with the variety of questions an officer may ask him or herself in a situation, when deciding to make an arrest.

These include,

Has anyone been hurt or deprived? Will anyone be hurt or deprived, if I do nothing? Will an arrest improve the situation or only make matters worse? Is a complaint more likely if there is no arrest, or if there is an arrest? What does the sergeant expect of me? Am I

getting near the end of my tour of duty? Will I have to go to court on my day off? If I do appear in court, will the charge stand up or will it be withdrawn or dismissed by the prosecutor? Will my partner think that an arrest shows I can handle things or that I cant handle things? What will the guy do if I let him go? (p. 84)

Clearly, these myriad of questions shows that an officer is not simply concerned with whether or not a law has been broken, but all of the other facets that come into play. Without discretion, there would only be black and white, which would not necessarily serve the best interests of society as a whole.


In the end, police discretion is a powerful and necessary tool. Every situation imaginable cannot be predetermined. However, along with the benefits of allowing officers to do their job effectively, the misuse of police discretion is a very real concern. Policing strategies have been developed and implemented, in an effort to reduce crime. Many of these do increase accountability; however, some may lead to increased incidences of misuse of police discretion. With current concerns about racial profiling and racial discrimination affecting police across the country, officers must be certain to be careful in use of discretion, if they wish to maintain the publics trust.


Bayley, DH, & Nixon, C. (2010). The changing environment for policing, 1985-2008 . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.

Klockstars, C. (1980). The Dirty Harry problem. The Annals of the American Academy, 452, 33-47.

Skogan, W.G., & Frydl, K. (2004). Fairness and effectiveness in policing the evidence. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Walsh, W. (2001). “Compstat: An analysis of an emerging police managerial paradigm.” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies.

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