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In every society, people are faced with various challenges which require them to make rightful decisions. It is very important for every person to have the ability to make a reasonable decision. In other words, every person regardless of his/her profession should have the ability and freedom to pick the best alternative from a number of alternatives (Sherman, 1984). The person should also be in a position to make the right decision without being influenced by others. This ability and freedom of an individual to make his/her own decision is what is known as discretion.
In police work, there are some situations that may require police officers to use discretion in solving the situations. Throughout the world, police departments are charged with the responsibilities of maintaining peace and order in societies. They have to restore public order and make sure that people do not break the law (LaFave, 1965). Police officers are seen as law enforcement agents and indeed they are the law enforcement agents and therefore they should arrest suspects and take them to court to be charged according to the law. However, there are some minor offenses that might be committed and a police officer might use his/her discretion in making the right decisions depending on the magnitude of the offense and the circumstance under which the offense has been committed. The decisions made by police officers using their own discretion must be according to the law and regulations that are set in a given country.
Myths associated with police discretion
In most countries, the laws require police officers to arrest people who have broken the law and take them to court where judgment is supposed to be made by a judge or a magistrate (Kleinig, 1996). During the training of police officers, there are some situations that they are not trained how to handle and it is a fact that they cannot be trained on everything that they might come across during their professional practice. There are some offenses that require police officers to report the offender while other offenses require that the person who has committed the offense to be arrested and arraigned in court. When police officers are enforcing the law, they come across some situations that may require them to use their discretion and decide whether to report someone who has committed a crime or arrest him/her.
The decision arrived at by a police officer when discretion has been used may not always be the right one and this gives rise to a myth that is used in many police departments around the world. The myth is that when any police officer is asked to explain if full enforcement of the law has been practiced in tackling a crime, the concerned police officer always responds by saying that, “We do our work by following the policy” (Manning, 1977). In most cases, police departments do not admit that police discretion has been used when enforcing the law. This is because police departments try to avoid legal issues which may arise and challenge the enforcement of the law and this may paint a bad image of the police departments (Manning, 1977). Sometimes police discretion is seen to be controversial especially when the people involved in a situation argue that a police officer is biased when making a decision. Even though the myth that has been stated above is known by many people, police discretion is very important in police work as long as it is used appropriately.
Circumstances where police discretion is used
Mental illness: A crime is considered to be a crime whether committed by a sane person or an insane person. However, if an insane person has committed a crime and a police officer has established that the person has mental problems, the police officer can use discretion and decide not to arrest the person but take the person away from the scene of the crime and take him home or to the hospital for a medical check-up (Sherman, 1984). In such a case, the action of a police officer is reasonable and cannot be considered to be an abuse of power. This is because laws in most countries protect the rights of people with mental problems and they cannot be judged the same way as sane people.
Hate Crime: A crime that is racially motivated can prove to be a challenge when a police officer wants to use discretion in solving a problem. If a person has committed a crime against another person, a police officer can use discretion and arrest the offender because if the offender is just removed from the scene of the crime without arrest there is the likelihood that he/she may come back and kill the other person (LaFave, 1965). The challenge is that if the police officer belongs to the same race as the person who has been offended, the offender might think that the police officer is biased when making the decision. Regardless of the race of a police officer, he/she should arrest anyone who has committed a crime that is racially motivated. In such a case, the decision by a police officer is reasonable and does not amount to an abuse of power.
Domestic Violence: In circumstances where there is domestic violence, a police officer may use discretion and arrest a person who has caused some marks on the body of the other person (Manning, 1977). If two people (husband and wife) have fought and there are marks on both of them, a police officer can decide to arrest both of them or instruct them to separate for a given period of time and come together when their anger shall have come down. This is a reasonable use of discretion by police officers.
Influence of drugs: If a person is driving a vehicle after taking some drugs to alter the mind, it is a violation of traffic rules and police discretion can be used in this situation. A police officer can order the driver to call any other person to take charge and drive him/her to the desired destination or arrest the driver (Manning, 1977). This is a reasonable discretion and the police officer is free to make any decision.
Traffic Violation: If a driver of a vehicle fails to stop at a point where there is a sign that requires a driver to stop for a police check, the police officer can decide to follow and arrest the driver for a traffic violation. The police officer can also decide not to follow the driver because it is possible that the driver had not seen the sign indicating a stop for a police check. In such a situation, a police officer is free to make any of the two decisions.
Prostitution: Prostitution is a vice that is illegal in most countries (Kleinig, 1996). A police officer can use his/her discretion to arrest a person who is found practicing prostitution. The officer can also just decide to warn the person if it is the first time the person has been caught involved in prostitution (LaFave, 1965). However, if the person involved in prostitution is proved to carry disease such as HIV/AIDS and has an intention of infecting others, the person should be arrested.
Theft: If a person who is homeless has stolen small food items such as banana fruits from a banana plantation and the owner of the banana plantation decides not to press any charges on the person, a police officer may decide to leave the thief with a warning not to still again (Sherman, 1984). This is a reasonable decision that can be made by a police officer because even if the thief is arrested, there may be no claimant to give evidence in a court of law.
Drug seller: Most countries prohibit the use of drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Drug peddlers are therefore supposed to be arrested and taken to court. Sometimes a police officer may decide to give a summons to the drug seller to appear in court on a particular day. Such discretion by a police officer is reasonable as long as the officer has a feeling that the drug seller will report to court as required.
Drug buyer: If a drug buyer is found, a police officer can give him/her summons to report to the court or can simply arrest him/her. Another alternative is that police officer can organize with the drug buyer to show them the person who sells the drugs. If everything is done as agreed between the two parties, then discretion is reasonable.
Gambling: This falls under vice crime and a police officer can decide to arrest the people involved in it (Kleinig, 1996). The police officer can also decide to break up the game and warn the people involved in it not to repeat it. In this case, the action by the police officer cannot be considered to be an abuse of power but a reasonable discretion.
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In conclusion, discretion in police work is very important because it reduces congestion in courts. This is because there are some offenses that are considered to be minor and police officers can use their discretion to solve them without necessarily referring them to courts. Laws in most countries protect the rights of individuals and the laws require that if a person is suspected to have committed a crime, he/she should be arrested and charged in a court of law. Some laws even state that a suspect is innocent until proved guilty in a court of law (LaFave, 1965). With regards to human rights, police officers should not use discretion for their own personal gains while harming a suspect. Law should be followed by police officers when using their discretion.
Kleinig, J. (1996.) Handled with Discretion: Ethical Issues in Police Decision Making. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
LaFave, W. (1965). Arrest: The Decision to Take a Suspect into Custody. Boston: Little Brown.
Manning, P. (1977). Police Work: The Social Organization of Policing. Cambridge: MIT.
Sherman, L. (1984). The Specific Deterrent Effect of Arrest for Domestic Assault. New York: Hill & Wang Publishers.