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Discretion and Ethical Decisions

You are a patrol sergeant lecturing to a college class about the patrol function. Someone raises her hand and asks, “Sergeant, your officers obviously can’t enforce all of the laws all of the time. Which laws are always enforced, and which ones are not?  What factors determine how police discretion is used?” The concepts of police discretion and ethics are obviously intertwined because all ethical dilemmas involve making a choice. How would you respond (without saying something like “We enforce all of the laws, all of the time,” which of course would be untrue)? How would you fully explain police discretion to the citizens’ group? How do you explain the fostering of good ethical decision making and discretion? How do you explain which laws are enforced first and the discretion involved in that ethical decision making?

The oath is a sworn commitment to act in an ethical manner. Ethics is a code of values that guides our choices and actions and determines the purpose and course of our lives” (Deshon, 2000, p.2). Ethics is not a written code or credo, it is about what we do. (Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute, 1995). Police officers are supposed to upheld the law just as we are. If they do not act then civil liabilities could result.

Discretion becomes a key word when a police officer extends professional courtesy .”There are " Legal issues, including both criminal and civil liabilities, are primary considerations when it comes to officers exercising discretion and deciding whether or not to and to what degree to extend professional courtesy” (McVoy, 2012, p.7)

A good example of ethics would be a officer stops a individual. The officer then asks the individual if he understands why he was topped? The individual says no but, can the officer give him a break?  Upon looking at his license the officer notices the individual he stops is a fellow police officer. He Is asking the police officer not to issue him a ticket,  should the officer give the individual he stopped a break? If the officer decides to let the individual go they could be in hot water.

Discretion can be described generally as an individual’s ability to pass sound decisions based on the principle of courses of the action. When police officers go through training, they are presented with  different scenarios which they could come across while on duty. Since the law does not cover all aspects there are new laws that exist to enable the officers use discretion.  The law is also some time ambiguous, and requires the officers to employ discretion and disregard various interpretations of the law.  In this case, discretion applies to enable them arrive at a decision.

Discretion considers the vacuum or void left in the existing policies and procedures of the law. However the police are not always allowed to apply discretion. Neyroud (2008) concludes that although police do possess a large amount of discretion, unfortunately, the legal framework under which they operate sharply limits their discretion and therefore their professionalism.

Police discretion may be exercised while making some types of decisions such as whether to draw a weapon or not whether to make an arrest whether to fire shots at a suspect, whether to issue a traffic ticket or another violation when to conduct a search and when to stop and give someone assistance.

  Police discretion enables the officers to show some degree of humanity when treating people, it enables them decide when a second chance is appropriate and when it is not,  and it also assists to improve how the public view the police force. If the police followed all laws to the letter, they would be deemed unfair by the society hence the significance of exercising discretion from time to time. Police discretion also creates room for realistic expectations and thus it promotes and ensures efficiency of the criminal justice system. Police discretion is also important to the officers as it ensures job satisfaction. This is accomplished in the sense that it enables the officers to exercise some powers which have been stipulated within the law (Palmiotto,2003).

  Police discretion is not full of benefits and has a number of downfalls. For instance police discretion may create room for corruption. In some cases police are not aware of the repercussions of their actions while exercising police discretion. Police discretion can be easily abused which may result to death or injury.

  Police discretion is best used or most commonly applied in cases of domestic violence and traffic offenses. Officers have regarded domestic violence as a private issue which is better left for counseling, social service and cooling off periods.

  However, discretion need to be controlled and is achieved through setting up policies and procedures to curb which aim at cubing misuse of discretion by officers. Even the police officers still need to follow the laws to the letter.

As stated by McVoy (2012) Using his own personal guidelines, an officer can show respect for those who share in the dangers of his profession, while ensuring that his moral

and ethical standards are not compromised (p.14). Ethics are a part of what police officers do without there would be chaos.


DeShon, R. W. (2000, March 31). PDF] police officers oath & ethics - Eastern Michigan ... Retrieved from www.emich.edu/cerns/.../PoliceStaff/.../OATH%20&%20ETHICS.pdf - Similar

7.2 Discretion and Supervision | Ethics in Law Enforcement. (n.d.). Retrieved from opentextbc.ca/ethicsinlawenforcement/.../7-2-discretion-and-supervision/

McVoy, J. A. (2012, April 22). Professional Courtesy Ethics in Policing - Crimin... Retrieved from www.cji.edu/site/assets/files/1921/professionalcourtesy.pdf - Similar

Palmiotto, M. (2003). Community policing: A policing strategy for the 21st century.   Gaithersburg, Md: Aspen.

Peak, K. (2012). Policing America: Challenges and best practices (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education

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